Erica Brown

Mensch Up

A few weeks ago, my housekeeper forgot to take her check on the kitchen counter. I called her frantically; perhaps she thought we forgot to pay her. She simply forgot. It was her problem. No, I said, it was our problem. “Justine, it says in the Bible that you have to pay someone on the day.”

“You shall not oppress your neighbor or rob him. The wages of a hired servant shall not remain with you all night until the morning,” it says in Leviticus 19:13. Do not oppress the worker who lives day-to-day and will not eat the day you forget or willfully ignore the bill.

There is a lot of talk today about minimum wage, but the issue of when you pay workers hardly gets attention. How can you forget? The worker did not forget to do the work or respect the deadline. Invoices say payment due upon services rendered. Many people read that as a suggestion.

Some people exploit others by dragging out the payment process. The prophets exhorted withholding payment by grouping it with other, more obvious crimes: “I will be a swift witness against … those who swear falsely, against those who oppress the hired worker in his wages, the widow and the fatherless, against those who thrust aside the sojourner…” [Malachi 3:5].

Jacob told Rachel, “Your father has cheated me and changed my wages ten times…” [Gen. 31:7]. If this verse didn’t get you in the gut, try Deuteronomy: “You shall not oppress a hired servant who is poor and needy. …You shall give him his wages on the same day, before the sun sets lest he cry against you to the Lord, and you be guilty of sin” [24:14-15].

Deuteronomy stresses the fact that the worker is poor and needy. But neediness isn’t always obvious. We don’t see medical bills, the care for an aging parent overseas or school tuition. We cannot judge anyone’s situation.

Getting beyond the Bible are examples that impact Jewish education and nonprofits today. People go into these fields to do good. It is a calling and a profession. For the sake of my younger colleagues and as a plea to organizations to develop a stronger ethic around payment, I will be bold.

It’s awkward to place a monetary value on one’s services when an organization is not forthright about what they pay and instead offers the ambiguous, “You tell us what you need.” We worry about what we charge and lowball ourselves. Many people — particularly women, I’ve noticed — tend to diminish themselves in this kind of negotiation. This is a form of oppression.

Professionals work out a price for a project, agree to the terms and then an organization renegotiates and offers less or keeps adding to the scope of the project without adding to the payment. Organizations offer what they call “standard” fees when they actually pay different fees depending on the speaker, sometimes offering less, often if the professional is a woman. Educators and consultants finish presenting and are told, “We don’t cut checks for five weeks after the conference/lecture/weekend.” Really? Should this young rabbi have waited five weeks to give the talk?

Organizations often negotiate fees as if in a shuk. It is undignified and unprofessional. If you have to “remind” organizations to pay multiple times, it is embarrassing and disrespectful. A young woman shared that she felt so uncomfortable about this that she was willing to go without payment just to make the bad feeling go away. This, too, is a form of oppression.

Many years ago, I was asked to speak somewhere. The group gave me the date, topic, and location. We were on the phone for 20 minutes. Finally, I choked up the courage to ask if this was on a professional basis, to which the caller replied, “What do you mean?”

“I mean, is this for pay?”

“But we’re a nonprofit!”

“I only work for nonprofits.”

“But my daughter speaks to Jewish groups, and she never charges.”

“This is my job.”

“Well, what qualifications do you have?”

“Why didn’t you ask that when you first called?”

This is a form of oppression, oppressive because it hurts.

So, nation, listen up. We have to learn to take the sting out of conversations about money. The one who hires must bring up payment right away and create uniformity and consistency around payment policies. Payment should be rendered upon completion of services, not weeks or months later. Forget manning-up. It’s time to mensch-up.

“Woe to him,” Jeremiah reminds us, “who builds his house by unrighteousness, and his upper rooms by injustice, who makes his neighbor serve him for nothing and does not give him his wages,” [Jeremiah 22:13].

Erica Brown is scholar-in-residence at The Jewish Federation of Greater Washington. Her column appears the first week of the month.

About the Author
Dr. Erica Brown is the Vice Provost for Values and Leadership at Yeshiva University and the director of its Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks–Herenstein Center. Her latest book is Ecclesiastes and the Search for Meaning (Maggid Books).