Sean Lilly Wilson initially struggled to explain why he signed on to the Durham Living Wage Project, a new initiative in Durham that encourages companies and nonprofits to pay employees up to 70 percent above the state and federal minimum wage.
“There is an easy answer to that,” said Wilson, who owns Fullsteam Brewery, but “I am not sure how I feel about the easy answer.”
That easy answer – employee retention and doing the right thing – glosses over the gray areas of a larger ongoing debate on increasing the minimum wage. That conversation, he said, involves a much more complex discussion that includes whether companies can afford to pay more than what they contend the market supports and government involvement in private businesses.
But when the initiative’s organizers approached Wilson about signing on to the project, he said, the program provided a well thought-out platform that nudged him in a direction that he had always planned to travel as Fullsteam matured.
Fullsteam is one of 20 businesses and eight nonprofits with more than 692 combined employees that have signed up for the Durham Living Wage Project, a nonprofit organization that stems from community, political and advocacy organization the Durham People’s Alliance.
Other participating companies include Rho, a contract research organization with 375 employees, and smaller companies such as Bountiful Backyards, Acanthus Construction, Cocoa Cinnamon, Monuts and Dogwalk.
The Durham Living Wage Project is modeled after Just Economics of Western North Carolina, an Asheville-based organization that advocates for businesses paying workers a defined living wage.
Project organizers are launching a crowdfunding campaign at Fullsteam at 7 p.m. today in an effort to raise $20,000 to cover expenses for the initiative that will offer free certifications to Durham organizations.
The Durham project uses the same standards that its city and county governments use to pay their employees after adopting living wage provisions in 1998 and 2004, respectively. To receive a Durham Living Wage certification, employers must pay individuals at least $12.33 an hour without insurance or $10.83 an hour with insurance. Independent contractors have to be paid at least $14.33 an hour.
Fullsteam and four other companies increased their wages in the certification process.
When Wilson opened Fullsteam in 2010, some employees started out making minimum wage (now at $7.25 an hour) because that was all he could afford.
“I was hardly paying myself,” he said.
Wilson had since started paying his employees more, but the program inspired an internal audit that led to wage increases for 11 out of about 30 employees. Increased wages, however, is just one piece of the larger employee retention puzzle, he said.
“In addition to good wages, we need good company principles, core values, good leadership and opportunity for advancement,” he said.