"Living Wage" and Halacha

After shalosh seudas last week, Rabbi Goldberger asked me what the next topic would be, and frankly I had several ideas floating around in my head and couldn’t really decide among them.  Then when I got home after Shabbos, I found the new issue of Tradition sitting in my mailbox and found that the lead article was something I had been thinking about for a while but really knew that I could never put together without help from someone else and here was Someone Else dealing with it.  The issue is one that I was attracted to partially because I’ve learned a good deal of Choshen Mishpat and partially because of the visibility of this issue in the press over the past few months.  The subject is “Living Wage in Halacha”.  The halachic analysis that I'm going to present is based on article written by Rabbi Dr. Aaron Levine.  The conclusions and suggestions are my own, but are informed by Rabbi Dr. Levine's work.

Now, I want to make something clear.  I do not intend to challenge anyone’s political or social beliefs.  We will see evidence for both sides.  I am not entering into a public policy argument with either side in this issue.  I am not here to challenge anyone, nor to discuss my own political opinions.  I want to simply evaluate the question of how Halacha views the employer employee relationship and how that relates to the contemporary concept of “living wage”.  We will then see to what extent injection “Jewish values” can be a discussion point in the recent and ongoing political debate .

Let’s take a look at the basics of Halacha in the employer-employee field.

Without going into sources, the halacha maintains that there are two different and distinct types of relationship between an employee and employer.  The first is a “poel” – a poel is defined as someone who sells fixed blocks of his time to an employer.  So most people, who basically are paid to work 40 hours a week fall into the category of “poel”.  The second is “kablan” – someone who is paid to complete a task without regard to the amount of time that it takes to actually do something.  These two concepts have absolutely nothing to do with our American legal definition of employee and consultant.  A management consultant who is not a corporate employee but is paid on an hourly basis is a poel; someone who is on the payroll who is being paid ratably to say, develop a specific program is a kablan.  We don’t care about who is paying payroll taxes, who is paying for health insurance – none of that enters into consideration.

We’ll start with a fairly simple analysis.

משנה מסכת בבא מציעא פרק ז  משנה א

[א] השוכר את הפועלים ואמר להם להשכים ולהעריב מקום שנהגו שלא להשכים ושלא להעריב אינו רשאי לכופן מקום שנהגו לזון יזון לספק במתיקה יספק הכל כמנהג המדינה

Someone hires workers and tells them to arrive at dawn and to stay until nightfall.  In a place where (those work conditions) are not customary, may not force them to do so. In a place in which it is customary to provide food or snacks for the workers, the employer must do so.  Everything is dependant on the local custom.

What we see from this to begin with is that the way workers are paid is entirely dependent on local practice, perhaps industry practice.  The basic hypothesis then is that there is some sort of market for labor and its terms and benefits is subject to an operating norm or standard.  A silly example would be all accounting firms have a coffee maker for staff to get coffee during the day.  If someone is hired to work for a firm and they do not let him know that they don’t provide coffee, they would be in violation of this rule.  In any event – norms rule.

What about salaries?

 שולחן ערוך חושן משפט סימן שלא סעיף ג
(ב) השוכר את הפועל,  ואמרו לו: כאחד וכשנים מבני העיר, מחשבין היתר שבשכירות והפחות שבשכירות, ומה שביניהם נותן החצי, כגון אם היתר בשש והפחות בארבע, נותן להם חמש.

Someone hires a worker and tells him "I will pay you like one or two of the local people".  We determine the highest wage rate and the lowest wage, and we divide the difference between them.  For example, if the highest is 6 and the lowest is 4, we give them 5. 

A guy hires a worker and tells him that he’ll pay him “like one or two of the other local workers”, the worker gets the average of the highest and lowest wage rate.  So, if there are 3 rates for labor, say $5 $7 and $8, the worker hired with that stipulation would be paid $6.50.

 Next case – same city, in the particular industry the workers have these 3 wage levels. The guy tells someone on the street – come work for me today.  Nothing about wage rates, no commitment, no comparison to anyone else.  Everyone doing that job in this guy’s factory makes more than $5.  What does this new worker get? He gets $5.  The universal principle in monetary matters is that the claimant must prove that the respondent owes him money; in this case he would have to prove somehow that the employer was thinking about an amount other than the $5 figure when he made the offer.  If you can’t do that – the claimant gets the minimum.  The rule is, familiar to anyone who has studied Talmud, המוציא מחברו עליו הראיה.

Nowhere is it evident that there is an exception to the rule – that the floor is the greater of the lowest wage or of the relevant “living wage” for that person.  Before John suggests that the “living wage” floor is implicit in the law, we’ll come back to defining what “living wage” must be in Halachic terms and then we’ll see that there can’t be any implicit assumption in the standard labor law – we’ll get to it later; take my word for it for now.

So we see that at a very basic level, there is no indication of a “living wage” requirement in the law.

However, there is, perhaps, some evidence in other literature that there might be such a thing (Ramban, Deut. 24:15)–

רמב"ן דברים פרק כד פסוק טו
(טו) וטעם ביומו תתן שכרו ולא תבוא עליו השמש - על דרך הפשט ביאור ממה שנאמר בתורה (ויקרא יט יג) לא תלין פעולת שכיר אתך עד בקר, כי דרך הכתובים לדבר בהוה, והמנהג לשכור הפועל ביום אחד, ולערב הוא יוצא טרם בא השמש. ויצוה הכתוב לפרעו ביומו בהשלים מלאכתו מיד, ושלא תבוא עליו השמש, כדי שיקנה בשכרו לו ולאשתו ולבניו מה שיאכלו בלילה, כי עני הוא - כרובי הנשכרים, ואל השכר הזה הוא נושא נפשו שיקנה בו מזון להחיות נפשו. ילמד אותנו בכאן, כי מה שאמר בתורה לא תלין פעולת שכיר אתך עד בקר, הכונה בו שתפרענו ביומו, שאם לא תפרענו בצאתו ממלאכתו מיד הנה ילך לביתו וישאר שכרו אתך עד בקר וימות הוא ברעב בלילה.

...and the reason why the verse says "pay him on his day and do not let the sun set" - the simple meaning is an explanation of what it says in the Torah (Lev. 19:13) "do not the wages of your worker with you until the morning".  The nature of Scripture is to speak of current practice, and the custom was to hire a worker for a day, and in the evening he would leave before nightfall.  The Torah is commanding us to pay him on that day immediately when he finished his work, and not let night fall, so that he can purchase for himself, his wife and his children what to eat that night, since, like most workers, he is poor.  He is counting on this wage to pay food to sustain himself.  From this we learn, that when the Torah tells us not to wait until the next day to pay the worker, the intent is that you must pay him on that day, since if you do not  pay him immediately when he leaves his work, he will go home, you will hold on to his wages until the next day and he will die of hunger during the night.

 Listen to this:

 שאם לא תפרענו בצאתו ממלאכתו מיד הנה ילך לביתו וישאר שכרו אתך עד בקר וימות הוא ברעב בלילה.

 ...if you do not  pay him immediately when he leaves his work, he will go home, you will hold on to his wages until the next day and he will die of hunger during the night.

 The guy’s going to starve if you don’t pay him.  Ok, maybe the whole idea of paying wages is one of פיקוח נפש.  Then there must be a living wage – if payment is פיקוח נפש , obviously whatever you pay has to be enough to keep him from starving.  QED.  At the very least, perhaps we have a Halachic position here, the Ramban, that leaves open the possibility.

רמב"ם הלכות שכירות פרק יא
אין השוכר עובר אלא בזמן שתבעו השכיר ולא נתן לו אבל אם לא תבעו או שתבעו ולא היה לו מה יתן לו או שהמחהו אצל אחר וקבל ה"ז ב פטור.

The employer only violates the prohibition if the worker demands payment and he doesn't.  If the worker does not demand payment or if he does demand payment and the employer has nothing to give him or if he assigned his earnings to someone else. he is not liable


שולחן ערוך חושן משפט סימן שלט סעיף ט

שכיר שמכיר בבעל הבית שאין דרכו להיות בידו מעות אלא ביום השוק, אינו עובר בבל תלין (ויקרא יט, יג), אפילו יש לו מעות; ומיום השוק ואילך, אם אינו נותן לו עובר משום אל תאמר לרעך וגו' (משלי ג, כח).

A worker who recognizes that the employer only has ready case on market day, (the employer) is not subject to the prohibition of late payment, even if he has ready funds.  From the market day forward, if he doesn't pay he is subject to a violation

פסקי דין - ירושלים דיני ממונות ובירורי יהדות ד עמוד רכח
 וכתב בחי' רעק"א בגליון השו"ע שמשמע מלשון השו"ע שאם אין לו מעות אע"פ שיש בידו שוה כסף, אינו עובר, אבל מלשון הברייתא משמע דוקא כשאין לו כלום להיפרע ממנו אינו עובר, וכן הוא לשון החינוך מ' תקפח, אבל אם יש לו שוה כסף חייב לפרוע, אלא שכתב שם שאם אין יכול לפורעו באותו יום אא"כ יאבד הרבה משלו, לא חייב הכתוב בזה.

 ...and it is written in the novellae of R. Akiva Eiger in his notations on the Shulchan Aruch that the implication is that if the employer does not have case, even though he has a cash equivalent, he is not in violation; however, it appears from the text of a Baraisa that the exemption is specifically when he has nothing to use to make payment, similar language is used in the Chinuch, Mitzvah 588.  However, if he has cash equivalents he must pay.  However, it is written there (in the Chinuch) that if he is unable to pay on that day without sustaining a significant loss, the Torah does not hold him liable.

 The implication is that if the employer has no money, no cash or cash equivalent, he is not required to sell property to pay wages – he’s allowed to pay in merchandise if the worker will accept it, but he doesn’t need to go to money losing extremes to get ready cash. 

The implication of this and other Halachic exemptions (such as various cases of workers hired by an agent) from the law of immediate wage payment, which the Ramban never challenges, makes it pretty clear that there is no imperative of פיקוח נפש in the law of payment.  So the only way to understand the Ramban’s comment is as an idiom or metaphor similar to embarrassing one is akin to killing him.  It’s a metaphor; I’ve embarrassed plenty of people, baruch hashem they are still walking the earth – doesn’t make it any less severe an affront, but it’s not the same.

In the absence of a literal understanding of the Ramban, since the moral duty of the employer is no more than to pay his worker the competitive wage, paying the poverty-stricken worker on time will not guarantee his survival either.

We’ll take a look at another case that is suggestive of the concept of living wage and we’ll get to the Halachic definition of that concept next week.



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Last Revised February 20, 2011
Copyright © 2011 by Adam M. Charney

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