Lee Harris

Lee Harris was elected Shelby County mayor in August 2018.

County Mayor Harris calls on U of M, SCS to lead way on minimum wage

By Published: January 24, 2019 12:48 AM CT

Last month, I was given a letter from a University of Memphis employee who has spent the last 18 years of her life cleaning bathrooms, classrooms and offices on the university’s campus.

After nearly two decades of work, Ms. Doris Brooks-Conley only makes $12.10 per hour. For a full-time employee (someone who works at least 37.5 hours per week), that’s only $23,595 per year before taxes.

When I campaigned to become the next Mayor of Shelby County, I pledged to focus on lifting residents out of poverty. That’s the centerpiece of my administration. Nearly 200,000 Shelby County residents currently live in poverty. The poverty rate in Memphis, at nearly 25 percent, is staggering.

Part of the solution is making sure those who work for a living earn a fair wage. We have tried to do our part in Shelby County government. Because of the work of the prior administration and our efforts in my first 100 days as mayor, all full-time and part-time Shelby County employees now make $15 per hour.

We can’t stop now. That’s why I’m calling on other large and influential public institutions, like the University of Memphis and Shelby County Schools, to join this administration in action and expand the number of employees in their organizations that make at least $15 per hour.

At the University of Memphis, the current minimum wage is $10.60 per hour and that is not right.

As a tenured professor of law at the U of M (2005–2018), I took great pride in knowing that I was a part of a university that enriches the lives of young people on our campus and uplifts all of Shelby County. The impact our great university can make will increase exponentially by lifting the wages of the lowest paid employees.

Custodians, landscapers, floor techs and maintenance workers all made it possible for me to teach and for students to study. I believe we must honor their work, time and devotion to the University’s mission by paying at least $15 per hour.

While Shelby County Schools has made great strides to raise their wages to $15 for most employees, there are still hundreds of cafeteria workers who do not get a fair wage. Our largest public organizations are going to have to lead the way. If we do, I believe the private sector employers that have so far refused to pay a fair wage will follow.

We can change lives, if we take action.

In 1968, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. spoke the famous words, “all labor has dignity,” when he addressed Memphis and the entire nation about the plight of this city’s sanitation workers. Custodians like Ms. Doris and her co-workers are examples of the hardworking people that our community rely on to function.

If Shelby County families are going to get out of poverty, we must invest in people and communities in need. What better place to raise our wages and our expectations than at our public institutions, like the University of Memphis and Shelby County Schools. These are two institutions that are preparing the next generation of leaders and doing the work of passing along and inculcating our most important community values.

(Editor's note: In response to Lee's comments, the University of Memphis offered the following remarks from President David Rudd. The remarks were in a campus-wide email Jan. 10.)

Dear Campus Community:

Prior to the close of 2018, both the Faculty Senate and the Staff Senate passed resolutions supporting raising the minimum wage at the U of M to $15/hour. This is consistent with recent movements in the City of Memphis and a range of other local institutions. I fully support this effort. It is entirely consistent with initiatives over my four-and-a-half-year tenure as president, marked by two disproportionate increases in the minimum wage over the past four years.

Most important, though, is the creation of a sustainable financial model that allows implementation of a significant minimum wage increase, one that does not result in unfair restrictions in the wages of other University employees, and one that does not require dramatic increases in student tuition and fees. Be reminded that prior to the past five-year period, the U of M experienced significant contraction that generated a $21 million annual operational deficit. This deficit was entirely a result of a 15-year stretch marked by average annual tuition increases of 7.4%.

In accordance with the above, I am requesting that our CFO initiate a study to create a responsible financial model that provides for consistent increases in our minimum wage. My hope is that our campus, including the Faculty Senate and the Staff Senate, will fully engage in this study process and help us find a pathway to a financially responsible, sustainable minimum wage increase.

<strong>Lee Harris</strong>

Lee Harris


Lee Harris David Rudd University Of Memphis Shelby County Schools

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