Blog Post

Lets Talk About Labor Justice

By Associate Conference Minister Daniel Ross-Jones

Like so many, one of the things I cherish the most about our United Church of Christ is the way the various settings of our church cling to our Christian call to justice for the oppressed, marginalized, and exploited. One of my personal justice passions is labor justice. It’s why I’m following the call to boycott Wendy’s as I stand in solidarity with the Immokalee Workers seeking the corporation to join the Fair Food Program and strengthen wages and working conditions for vulnerable Floridian workers essential to the food corporation’s business. It’s also why I no longer shop on Amazon as their business practices and work environments are grounded in exploitative labor practices and are hampering advancement in marginalized communities like my own City of East Palo Alto.

It’s why I’m so passionate about Fair & Just Compensation for Church Workers, our Conference’s guidance document outlining the appropriate and necessary expectations for labor justice among our clergy and lay workers in all positions in our member churches.

As an Authorized Minister in this denomination, I’m bound in our Ministerial Code to “advocate for fair standards of compensation for all ordained and lay employees of the Church.” I take this commitment as just as sacred as the other commitments I hold under the Code, equal to my responsibility for my personal faith and devotional life, preaching and teaching the gospel, honoring confidences, and affirming the diversity in faith and expression as witness to the tapestry of the Divine.

Last week, our Conference Council approved the 2020 revision to Fair & Just Compensation. In my travels around the Conference, I often get questions about how the document arrived at the various amounts that compose the formula basis for salary determination.

Authorized Ministers are professionals in truly every sense. No matter their pathway to becoming an Authorized Minister, each one has attained at least the equivalent to six or seven years of post-high school education before the time they are ordained. Clergy are ranked among the classical learned professions, equal alongside medicine and law. In our Reformed Protestant tradition that undergirds much of the history of our United Church of Christ, the importance of education to the office of Pastor & Teacher cannot be understated.

Of course, once one becomes ordained, it’s not as if their vocational formation ceases to exist. “They didn’t teach that in seminary” is a trite phrase that is almost like the secret clergy greeting to one another upon meeting. Authorized Ministers are, at once, specialist and generalist. Translating the timeless teachings of the prophets into modern language, from analog to digital. Building managers. Gourmet chefs. Social workers. Activists. Facilitators. Artists.

To oversimplify things, employees in the United States are generally legally categorized as “exempt” or “non-exempt.” That is, whether they are “exempt” from needing to substantiate their hours worked and eligibility for overtime pay. (Again, this is an oversimplification.) In order to prove exemption for a particular exemption category, the employer must be able to demonstrate eligibility for the exemption under specific, particular employment tests.

One of those tests is for “learned professional” positions. Under this exemption category, the vast majority of our clergy positions in local churches would qualify. Such employees must be engaged in work that “require[s] advanced knowledge… [requiring] the consistent exercise of discretion and judgment [and] the advanced knowledge must be continually acquired by a prolonged course of specialized intellectual instruction.” (US Department of Labor Fact Sheet #17D)

In addition to the job responsibilities, the level of compensation offered for the position determines whether or not the position is exempt from time reporting and overtime compensation requirements. In the State of California, this salary basis must equal or exceed a rate of two times the minimum wage according to the Labor Code.

Fair & Just Compensation uses a formula approach to arrive at the guidance it provides for church worker positions, including pastors and other staff members. The first line of the formula in each instance is informed by both the wage requirements and the customary application of exempt and non-exempt for position titles in most of our churches.

In 2020, line 1 for clergy and professional lay program staff is set at $54,080 on an annualized basis, or $26 per hour on an hourly basis. This is in direct response to the learned professional tradition and exemption basis of employment categorization. In 2021 and 2022, this line will continue to increase as the California minimum wage increases to $15 per hour.

Some municipalities in California have already adopted a $15 minimum wage. It is important to determine minimum wage requirements for your municipality and how they impact all of your employees: lay and ordained, exempt and non-exempt.

And, while I’ve been talking about California – don’t lose hope, Nevada. Your minimum wage has also increased in recent years, and UCCers are advocating and working to continue raising the wage in your state. Justice does not change across state lines even if civil obligations are interpreted differently.

Sometimes we’re asked for data on the average compensation of Conference clergy to arrive at a fair wage. We no longer provide that data, because while it may produce a competitive wage, it may not illustrate a just wage. When we replaced the former compensation guidelines with Fair & Just Compensation a few years ago, the name change was intentional: as a denomination committed to labor justice, we must hold ourselves to the same standard as we advocate in our work.

We encourage each church and minister to re-evaluate and negotiate the employment details of their call agreement regularly, ideally annually. The same goes for lay employees and employment agreements. Fair & Just Compensation is an excellent resource, along with strong personnel policies and employee handbooks. I hope you’ll reach out to your Associate Conference Minister with questions for support!

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