Durham forum marks 10th anniversary of last increase in the federal minimum wage

Chucky Eaborn began working in fast-food nine years ago. She made $7.25 an hour, the federal minimum wage.

Today, she still works in the fast-food industry at Burger King, making the same amount.

“I think back to nine years ago when I got my first job in fast food,” Eaborn said. “My son Rashad was less than 1 year old, and I was struggling to pay for his formula on my wage. Today, my son is 9, and I am still struggling to pay for groceries.”

Similarly, Deyosha Davis, a Durham woman, can’t afford her own home or child care for her two children.

“If I ever wanted to move into my own place, I couldn’t do it on minimum wage,” Davis said. “My kids are impacted by NC minimum wage even if they don’t know it yet.”

Davis said most child care in the area starts at $250 a week and that’s out of her reach. She had to take her daughter out of preschool last year when she could no longer afford the cost.

“I do know 10 years ago child care didn’t cost that much,” Davis said. “It’s getting more and more expensive to take care of my children but the minimum wage is the same. That’s a hard pill to swallow.”

As of Wednesday, it has been exactly 10 years since the federal government increased the minimum wage to $7.25 an hour. North Carolina’s minimum is the same.

“The price of food has gone up so much,” Eaborn said. “But my wage has not gone up one penny. I still make $7.25.”

The Democrat-controlled U.S. House of Representatives passed a bill last week that would increase the federal minimum wage to $15 over the next six years. But some reports are unsure about it being approved by the Senate, where Republicans are the majority.

“America’s workers deserve a raise,” House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., said before the House vote.

With inflation, the federal minimum wage in 2019 is the lowest it’s been since 1950, according to a CBS report and Bureau of Labor Statistics data.

A forum was scheduled in downtown Durham Wednesday to mark the anniversary. Minimum wage workers and activists decried the lack of change, demanding an increase in wages.

When the bill passed in the house I cried,” said Wanda Coker, an activist at the event. “I felt extremely proud that workers made this possible. Thursday’s vote proved workers are powerful when we stand together and speak up.”

The Durham event was hosted by NC Raise Up, Fight for $15 and “Decade Without a Raise” Workers’ Forum. It was part of a statewide day of action coordinated by the Raising Wages NC Coalition.

Crowd members chanted, “North Carolina, raise up, put your fist up, tell them $7.25 ain’t enough”; “We work, we sweat, put 15 on our check”; and ““What do we want? 15. When do we want it? Now?”

North Carolina has not approved any legislation to raise the minimum wage, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

Durham Mayor Steve Schewel attended the event Wednesday and said he and others in Durham were fighting for a fair wage.

“We need our legislators to be ready to do the same,” Schewel said. “We have to change. We have to vote and change who is in there. The state legislature won’t let Durham city raise its minimum wage and we need $15 to happen all over. “

State Rep. Marcia Morey, who was also at the event, was a sponsor for the raising wages in multiple North Carolina bills.

“In Raleigh, it has to happen,” Morey said. “If you think we are doing nothing, you’re right. The leadership is doing nothing and have tied our hands. I have introduced bill after bill after bill. What’s happened? Nothing.”

In 2016, about 38,000 of 2.5 million workers in North Carolina earned exactly $7.25. That year, about 52,000 people, who mainly consist of youth, disabled or tipped employees, earned less than the federal minimum wage.

“We have to change,” Morey said. “The only way we are going to do this is by voting. I’ve watched one speeding ticket put someone out of their apartment and I got tired of the injustice. We need the youth to give a voice to our streets and a vote is the way to do it.”

Raising the roof

Orange County Living Wage, a nonprofit group, is on a mission to encourage employers to raise their wages. Thanks to this initiative, more than 500 local employees have been given livable raises, Orange County Living Wage said.

The nonprofit certified its first employer in July 2015; four years later, it has designated close to 200 employers as “Living Wage Certified.” Employers earn the designation by agreeing to pay workers a local living wage of $14.25 an hour (or $12.75 if the employer provides health insurance).

In Durham, a similar mission called the Durham Living Wage Project is run by the nonprofit People’s Alliance Fund, which supports progressive activities in Durham and other North Carolina communities.

Almost 150 employers are certified by the project and pay their employees at least $15 an hour (or $13.50 with health insurance benefits).

No fast-food restaurants in Orange County or Durham are certified.

Earl Bradley, a Wendy’s employee of seven and a half years, spoke at the event as the audience cheered him on.

He lives in an apartment on the West Side of Durham with a Section 8 housing voucher. Still, he said he struggles to cover rent and utilities with the paycheck he brings home.

“If you work a minimum wage job and are looking for an apartment -- you already know what I’m going to say,” he said. “Millions of families are without a stable place to live.... We know we have a housing crisis in Durham, both I and my mother have been a part of the fight. If we are going to talk about affordable housing we need to talk about the minimum wage.”

Nationally, 21 states have not increased wages and remain at the federal minimum. This year, 18 states and 24 cities increased their minimum wage.

Emeryville, California, has recently become the city with the highest minimum wage in the country at $16.30 an hour.

According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, eight of those states increased the pay based on the increased cost of living, while 10 states increased the wage via legislation or ballot initiatives.

But raising the wage doesn’t always come easy.

Some Emeryville small businesses told The Wall Street Journal that they’re struggling after a handful of minimum wage increases over the past few years.

A 2018 survey, conducted by the small California city, found that most of the retail stores adapted to the increases, but the restaurant industry was suffering.

‘Something people can live on’

In addition to Durham, rallies for a higher minimum wage were scheduled to be held Wednesday in Asheville and Wilmington.

As the forum came to a close, Coker spoke again.

“Multiple workers shared their stories and the struggle they are going through,” she said. “They showed the reality of what $7.25 means for individuals and families.”

Coker and others yelled that the time for change is now.

“It’s time for North Carolina to do what’s right for our people and economy,” Coker said. “Raise the minimum wage to $ something people can live on.”

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Jacquelyn Melinek covers metro news for the News & Observer, where she works to update readers about the latest in government, crime, schools and other local news stories. She is a Stembler Scholar, graduated from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill in the School of Media and Journalism and grew up in Westchester, New York.