After talking up the benefits of adopting a living wage versus a minimum wage, Wonolo’s chief executive officer Yong Kim is taking action.
In a full-page ad last week in The New York Times, Kim called on other business leaders to take the living wage pledge. The living wage calculator was developed to estimate the costs of living in a community or region based on typical expenses. The tool is meant to help individuals, communities and employers determine a local wage that allows residents to meet minimum standards of living.
It is a market-based approach that draws upon geographically specific expenditure data related to a family’s likely minimum food, child care, health insurance, housing, transportation and other basic necessities like clothing and personal care items.
With 200 corporate employees, Wonolo helps contract gigs for about 500,000 workers on its marketplace platform. After broaching the prospect of supporting a living wage with corporate leaders often led to interest but no commitments, Wonolo’s CEO decided to take action. “What we said was, ‘Instead of waiting for some large company to take a stand and do the right thing, we’re going to take the matter into our hands.’ The more we talk about it and exemplify what can be done, hopefully many other big corporations will take the pledge.”
Wonolo’s goal is to get all of the companies that it works with through its platform to commit to or above a living wage by the end of the year. Seventy percent are on board.
A commitment to living wages should not result in companies accelerating automation to avoid added costs, Kim said. “We’ve worked with a lot of companies that have implemented various automation systems at their facilities, especially for frontline jobs. What we have seen, though, is that has always created different types of jobs.”
The living wage calculator’s creator, Amy Glasmeier, a professor of economic geography and regional planning at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, agreed. “Higher wages induce employers to raise productivity. We are about to face a labor shortage, given the aging Baby Boomer generation, a smaller Generation Z and reduced immigration,” she said.
Analysts and policy makers are inclined to compare income to the federal poverty threshold in order to determine an individual’s ability to live within a certain standard of living. Those poverty benchmarks don’t examine living costs except food budgets. Glasmeier noted that the minimum wage is based on a calculation that dates back to the 1960s and “the composition hasn’t changed since then.”
President Joe Biden’s administration has proposed raising the minimum wage to $15 an hour, although that has been met with resistance in Congress, particularly from Republicans.
Many firms have already adopted the living wage as the benchmark, Glasmeier said. “The empirical evidence is mounting that paying a living wage is not only possible, but will have positive productivity spillover effects.”
Kim said his career is largely tied to his personal experience. “I am an immigrant who came to the States by myself in the early Nineties. I came from South Korea to a small town in New Hampshire called Wolfeboro. Imagine a South Korean boy, 15 years old, without a family, who didn’t speak the language or know anyone. This was way before the beginning of the internet and the Google of the world,” he said.
Along with learning the language and studying, Kim had to find a job. Back then, the only way “for someone like” him to look for one involved going into town to look for “hiring” or “Help wanted” signs. “I would walk in cold and start pitching in my broken English. I had such a hard time finding a job even as a dishwasher at a restaurant because of the way I looked or the way I spoke. That experience really stayed with me through my career and really helped to define my character and what I wanted to achieve in my career.”
Kim’s first job was a book stacker at a local library that paid $7 an hour before taxes. Although he is relying on an MIT-based tool, Kim attended “a competitor school across the river” — Harvard Business School.
Thirty years later in 2013, Kim realized that even with the advancements of technology and HR software, more than 60 percent of the U.S. population is making less than $50,000 a year. “The struggle is still there. If you are making $10 an hour working at a warehouse, it is not as though you are going to be showing off your credentials on a LinkedIn profile or headhunters will be reaching out to you. If you are in that segment, you are still struggling to find additional income and job opportunities. You still have to go through the résumé review and interview process,” Kim said.
Yet many companies cannot find workers to fill jobs, with the disconnect being blue-collar workers can’t find jobs in the easiest ways. That realization helped spark the idea for Wonolo, which stands for, “Work. Now. Locally.” Launched at the end of 2014, the company helps line up temporary workers for a lot of fashion e-commerce companies. The site can also handle HR compliance, insurance and other behind-the-scenes necessities.
Asked whether workers are being dehumanized as many continue to work from home and at all hours while their employers are racing to be more productive to compensate for financial challenges brought on by the pandemic, Kim said, “I don’t think so. That notion of flexibility that the pandemic has brought to many different people. All of a sudden parents have more time to tend to their children and not go through two hours of traffic commuting to and from work. They have an immense level of flexibility that they can leverage. We have a lot more empowerment around some of the decisions that we can make, how we want to engage and how we think about our career and work. Also, advancements in technology have brought people closer in many ways. People who you may not have spoken to often enough, you now do so through virtual conferences and whatnot. Ultimately, human beings definitely need in-person connections. Once everyone is vaccinated we will probably move more toward the hybrid world. What’s really powerful is that every company is breaking out of the mold and is recognizing that flexibility is here to stay.”
Watching the Amazon union vote closely, Kim said many of the people who use Wonolo are not union employees. As for whether they would like to be, he said, “We do not know. We always support the rights of workers to bargain on their terms and conditions. We definitely respect that. Whether the workers that choose to work through Wonolo marketplace want the union efforts or not, that we haven’t done a proper study of.”
Although Kim, who along with his wife has three athletically competitive daughters, does not have any political aspirations (some have inquired), after his career at Wonolo he would love to give back through work in the nonprofit or education sectors. Teaching the next generation and working with minorities and the underserved are “what really gets me going,” he said.
Acknowledging how recent media coverage has helped to raise awareness about anti-Asian violence, Kim mentioned that he recently shared one of his own experiences from his teenage stay in New Hampshire via LinkedIn. “More Asian leaders and influencers have finally spoken up. In the past, out of respect for various reasons Asian Americans have stayed relatively quiet. Of course as a community of Asian Americans, we have always supported the fight against racism in the country or in the world. But a lot of those racial topics have revolved around certain ethnic groups that was not necessarily focused on Asian Americans,” he said. “Now a lot more leaders are being vocal and more Asian Americans are being represented in business and politics, having a strong voice in the world. All of those efforts have been positive. There is still a very long way to go. The Asian American population in the U.S. is a still small percentage of the total but it is a growing population. The next generation is seeing the movement and I am sure they will do amazing things.”
As for what is needed for the country to live more unified, Kim said it comes down to open conversation and more education. Traveling throughout the country including more homogeneous areas, he often hears from people how he is the first Asian person that they have met. After hours or days of interacting together, they have open conversations about what they thought he would be like. “No judgment. [We are] just being open in a very transparent way. It breaks down the barriers and it often changes people’s perceptions around who we are as human beings. We realize that we are much more similar than we tend to believe or appear. More conversations, more vulnerability, more love — that’s what we need. And more mingling with people, who are different from you is very, very important.”