TOMPKINS COUNTY, N.Y.—The living wage in Tompkins County has jumped since last year, from  $16.61 to $18.45.

The increase in the living wage marks an 11% increase from last year’s — an annual increase that stands to be the largest since at least 2006. The news comes with the release of the 2024 Tompkins County Living Wage Study on Wednesday. 

The main driver pushing up the cost of living is housing. The fair market rent for a one-bedroom apartment in Tompkins County has increased to $1,276, or by $149 — a 13% increase outpacing inflation. 

The local living wage study was conceived nearly 30 years ago by Alternatives Federal Credit Union in an effort to determine a more equitable wage to pay its own employees. The study is based on the costs of living in Tompkins County, such as the cost of food, transportation and rent for a one-bedroom apartment. 

Since its conception, the study has evolved into a benchmark for determining the cost of living in the Ithaca area. That has, in large part, been the result of a Employer Living Wage Certification program administered by the Tompkins County Workers’ Center, which was founded formally in 2003. 

Pete Meyers, the Tompkins County Workers’ Center’s coordinator, stressed that the 2024 living wage study reflects what workers need to make in order to meet the current cost of basic living expenses in Tompkins County.

“This wage of $18.45, that’s for right now,” Meyers told The Ithaca Voice. “This is actually gonna be the 2024 living wage. But this is what workers actually are having to deal with.”

Pete Meyers, Pete Meyers, the Tompkins County Workers’ Center’s coordinator, speaks into a microphone at the 2024 Tompkins County Living Wage announcement event. To Meyers’ left, is Ian Greer, Director of ILR’s Ithaca Co-Lab, and to Meyers’ right is Kevin Kevin Mietlicki, president and CEO of Alternatives Federal Credit Union. Credit: Casey Martin / The Ithaca Voice

Kevin Mietlicki, president and CEO of Alternatives Federal Credit Union, emphasized that the living wage is not a “thriving wage,” at an announcement event for the 2024 living wage study. 

“You’re not going to thrive making this,” Mietlicki said. He added that trying to live on New York state’s minimum wage “is so much lower, and the struggles can be worse.” 

The state minimum wage is set at $15 in New York City, Long Island, and Westchester County, and at $14.20 in the rest of New York. The minimum wage in upstate is scheduled to reach $16 an hour by 2026 through annually scheduled increases.

The report released Wednesday broadens the scope from the study’s previous publications. It highlights the demographics, revealing stark economic inequities across race and ethnicity in Tompkins County.

Countywide, 37.5% of wage earners on average are earning less than $18.45 an hour according to the study. But 58.8% of Black wage earners in the county are earning less than $18.45.

Only white wage earners are beating the odds: 35% of white wage earners are making less than the new living wage.

Regardless of race, 33.6% of male wage earners make less than a living wage, and 41.4% of women make less than a living wage.

“Who is it that’s not being paid a living wage? Who’s struggling with it? We all know what those answers were. But no one would say it. I think Alternatives has never been a credit union that’s shied away from making social commentary,” said Mietlicki.

The expansion of the living wage study to include demographics results from a new partnership between Alternatives and the worker’s center with researchers at Cornell University’s School of Industrial and Labor Relations (ILR) Ithaca, and Buffalo Co-Labs. 

Ian Greer, Director of ILR’s Ithaca Co-Lab, told The Ithaca Voice that, “The first time I saw the racial disparities, numbers, I was pretty surprised. I knew that they would be there, but I didn’t think they would be that extreme.”

Researchers at the ILR’s school Co-Labs tweaked the methodology of how the living wage study was conducted. The same monthly living expenses were reviewed to calculate the wage, but researchers were able to access more localized data through SimplyAnalytics, an interactive mapping portal and data provider.

The plan is for ILR researchers to continue their collaboration and update the living wage study annually, as opposed to the previous practice of updating it once every other year. The hope is that the study can inform policy discussions at the local and larger levels. 

“If you increase the minimum wage to the living wage figure, you would raise the wages of the vast majority of Black workers and seriously reduce racial disparities in the labor market,” Greer said. “So it’s considerations like that that make it important for us to look at the demographics.”

Meyers said that certified living wage employers will have until Jan. 1, 2025 to raise their employees hourly wage to $18.45 from $16.61 to stay in compliance. 

Update: A screen shot of a the table titled, “Table 2. Likelihood of Earning Less than the 2023 Tompkins County Living Wage, by Race-Ethnicity” was included in this article following publication.

Jimmy Jordan is Senior Reporter for The Ithaca Voice. Questions? Story tips? Contact him at Connect with him on Twitter @jmmy_jrdn