A new group wants to build up Orange County families and the local economy by promoting businesses and nonprofits that pay a “living wage.”
Low wages, particularly in restaurant and other service jobs, and the move of some businesses toward more part-time, temporary and seasonal workers has sparked a national conversation about the value of work.
Higher wages help more than those who earn them, Orange County Living Wage chairwoman Susan Romaine said. Workers who can afford to live where they work spend more time volunteering in the community. They also spend more time with their families, she said, and purchase more local goods and services.
“Those who are working at the low end of the pay scale, when they get a pay raise, they don’t save it,” Romaine said. “They spend it, and when they spend it, they give a big boost, a big shot in the arm to the local economy.”
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The problem with minimum wage is that workers often hold two or three jobs to meet their families’ basic needs, with little to nothing left to help repair the family car or deal with an emergency. The federal minimum wage of $7.25 an hour – $2.13 a hour for employees who also receive tips that add up to at least $7.25 an hour – requires a family to live on $15,800 a year.
At least 40 percent of Orange County families are considered “working poor,” which means they can’t meet those basic needs of rent, food, transportation, medical care and childcare, said Susan Romaine, chairwoman of Orange County Living Wage.
The group has launched a voluntary certification program to encourage employers to pay at least $12.75 an hour. The program also certifies employers who pay at least $11.25 an hour, if they foot the bill for half of the worker’s health insurance costs.
The effort started in March with a 10-member steering committee and has certified nearly 40 nonprofit groups and businesses so far. That means another 779 full- and part-time employees in Orange County are being paid $12.75 an hour or more, Romaine said.
The living wage assumes a family won’t pay more than 30 percent of its income for housing and can be adjusted if the cost of housing rises more than 3 percent a year, Romaine said. More than 50 percent of county residents pay over 30 percent of their income for housing, reports show.
The voluntary certification program is based on programs in Asheville and Durham, she said. The Durham Living Wage Project started earlier this year with 43 certified employers and has grown to 75, director Mel Norton said.
Carol Woods Retirement Community has made the biggest change so far, Romaine said. It raised salaries for 108 employees – or about 31 percent of its intermittent, part-time and full-time workers – to at least $12.76 a year with benefits.
Carol Woods residents have supported paying a living wage to employees since 1999, said Ken Reeb, chief financial officer. The minimum wage had been $10.81 an hour, until they raised it this year to match the living wage that Orange County pays its employees, he said.
The higher starting salary, which primarily affected food service, groundskeeping and housekeeping employees, also meant pay raises for some existing workers, he said. The cost to Carol Woods was an estimated $220,000 to $225,000, he said.
Working in the service industry, it’s a challenge to do just that job and pay your bills.
Tara Mortimer Peloquin, employee at Joe Van Gogh coffee shop
Higher wages are good for families and good for business, Reeb said, since well-paid employees work harder, take fewer sick days and are less likely to leave. The challenge for Carol Woods is balancing the cost of higher salaries with what residents, many on fixed incomes, can pay, he said.
Residents are “sensitive to their rising costs on a compounding fashion, but they also recognize the responsibility to the next generation to be able to invest in our community in a very meaningful way through compensation of the folks that are serving them,” he said.
A living wage lets Hillsborough resident Tara Mortimer Peloquin do work she loves, pay her $500 in student loans each month and take care of her family. She has been working at Joe Van Gogh, a certified Living Wage coffee shop in Chapel Hill’s Timberlyne Shopping Center, for about a year.
“Working in the service industry, it’s a challenge to do just that job and pay your bills,” Peloquin said. “I love taking people coffee and making people happy, and I get to do just that full time because Joe Van Gogh pays me a living wage.”
Bar staff at Hillsborough’s Hot Tin Roof already earned more than the minimum wage, owner Mark Bateman said. They only meet the living wage requirement because tips count as salary, he said. A living wage can be a challenge for small businesses already struggling to meet payroll, he said.
“It’s a great idea in principle. I don’t know if it’s something that’s practical,” Bateman said. “When I had my video stores, if I had to pay $12.75 an hour, I couldn’t have stayed in business.”
Orange County Living Wage and its business partners are willing to help employers who want to take a chance on higher pay, organizers said.
The group is encouraging people through its website and social media to patronize living wage-certified businesses, which can be identified by special decals on their windows and doors, and offering advice to businesses that might be interested in joining the campaign.
They also need volunteers to spread the word, raise money and join a coalition of business, social and religious leaders to push for change, Romaine and others said. The government also has an important role in supporting all people in the community, state Rep. Graig Meyer said.
“But when the General Assembly and when our Congress fail to act on helping to raise wages in a rebounding economy,” Meyer said, “then it falls to those of us who are in the community to help each other.”
Find a list of certified employers and more information about the Orange County Living Wage group and its goals at orangecountylivingwage.org.