Today we celebrate one of the good guys.
“I’m a left-wing socialist environmental extremist peacenik radical,” Jim Wellehan said with a chuckle Tuesday. “But you can call me a progressive if you want.”
And while you’re at it, toss in one savvy businessman.
Wellehan, the longtime owner of Lamey-Wellehan Shoes, is the star of a two-minute video launched recently on social media by President Obama. Urges the president in his accompanying Facebook message: “Watch: Jim owns a shoe store that’s been open for 100 years, and he knows the importance of paying his employees a fair wage.”
A little context: The federal minimum wage currently is $7.25 per hour. Maine’s minimum, at $7.50 per hour, is barely better. If the Obama administration has its way, the federal minimum will increase in three steps to $10.10 per hour.
The average hourly wage among the 100 or so employees at Lamey Wellehan? Try $15 per hour.
“Remember what your mom used to tell you? You never get in trouble doing the right thing,” said Wellehan. “It works out pretty well for our people.”
Perhaps you’ve seen or heard Wellehan advocating for Maine’s immigrants or sounding the alarm over plastic bags that are choking our oceans (more on that in a minute). Friendly yet outspoken, self-deprecating yet certain he’s on the right side of history, he’s a living, breathing antidote to the conservative mantra that all “job creators” are good, raising the minimum wage is bad and if you don’t like what they’re paying you, go work someplace else.
Counters Wellehan in the video, “When I was a kid, America was definitely committed to fairness. And that concern for other people seems to be missing today in our corporate culture. And we’ve got to change that. We should pay people enough to live on comfortably, to educate their kids, to bring up their kids.”
Consider: The minimum wage was $1.60 per hour in 1968. Adjusted for inflation, that would be $10.79 today – meaning America’s lowest-paid workers are 33 percent worse off today than they were almost a half-century ago.
Consider: In 2013, according to an annual survey by the AFL-CIO, the chief executive officers at 350 companies listed on the Standard & Poor’s Index averaged 774 times the salary of a minimum-wage worker. Put another way, a minimum-wage worker at Wal-Mart would have to labor 1,371 hours to match what recently retired CEO Michael Duke made in a single hour.
Consider: According to the U.S. Department of Labor, the average employee’s tenure with an employer is 4.6 years. At Lamey Wellehan, well, let’s go back to the video …
“I can name every one of them,” Wellehan says of his employees scattered over seven locations throughout Maine. “Nancy, she’s been here for 35 years, Don has been here for 25 years, Chris has been here for 25 years, Lucy’s been here for 25 years, Sharon’s been here for 28 years … Sara’s new, she’s only been with us for five years …”
In addition to their living wage, (which includes commission on every pair of shoes sold), Lamey-Wellehan workers boast a health plan and a 401k retirement package that bolsters their 5 percent contribution with a 5.5 percent company match.
They also get extensive professional training in everything from foot problems to gait analysis, meaning “they provide better service and our business grows every year,” Wellehan said.
It’s not the only way Wellehan does well by doing good.
The company recently saved $8,000 annually by going bag-free, part of Wellehan’s personal crusade to cut down on the 46,000 pieces of plastic currently polluting every square mile of ocean. The unspent bag money is being funneled into a scholarship program for Maine students studying ecology and/or economics at a Maine college or university.
Then there’s Wellehan’s commitment to reducing his carbon footprint. In 2003, the company spent more than $91,000 annually on energy costs, accounting for 1.22 percent of its sales. Last year, despite having added 7,000 more square feet and seven more exterior walls, its energy bill was $79,000, or 0.69 percent of sales. (Carbon emissions over the same period have dropped by 30 percent.)
But back to those workers.
When sales sagged during the Great Recession a few years back, recalled Wellehan, “I took a cut (in salary) and a couple of top people took a cut and we were lucky we didn’t have to cut any more.”
A noble gesture, to be sure. Still, wouldn’t a company-wide pay cut have helped shore up that sagging bottom line?
“I think it would very quickly have the opposite effect,” said Wellehan. “If you’ve got people who are happy and like to work with you and enjoy what they do and do a good job, how can you be more profitable than that?”
Some will call that crazy talk. They’ll say Wellehan, for all his generosity, is confusing worker morale and quality of life and other touchy-feelies with cold, hard profits.
Wellehan, progressive businessman that he unabashedly has been since he took over the 100-year-old, family-owned business from his father 40 years ago, says they’re wrong.
Raise low-paid workers’ income, he said, “and they’re going to spend that. That’s known as the ‘multiplier effect.’ ”
What’s more, he added, it’s the fiscally responsible thing to do.
“People making more money are going to be less dependent on government aid,” Wellehan said. “We hear all this talk about people depending on welfare and government handouts. If we pay them more, they won’t be. They’re going to take more pride in who they are and what they do.”
Wellehan’s video, engaging as it is, won’t by itself change one of countless standoffs currently paralyzing Capitol Hill. Nor, barring a miracle, will the full-court press Obama himself is now applying to the minimum-wage fight.
But when you consider all the negative attention that’s rained down on this state the past few years (see: Gov. Paul LePage/foot in mouth), it’s heartening to hear a true “job creator” put his money where his fellow Mainers are.
“We’ve got to be a more cohesive, unified economy with a reasonable sharing of what we’ve got,” said Wellehan. “It needs to happen. Do you want a better economy or a worse economy?”
I’ll vote with my feet on that one.
Starting with my next pair of shoes.