A couple of months after moving to Durham in 2013, I heard about Cocoa Cinnamon, a local coffee shop whose entryway features mismatched, rainbow-colored chairs and vintage maps. During my most recent visit, I listened to soft piano music as the barista made my drink, an iced coffee with hints of rosemary and vanilla.
I initially visited the shop for its lauded coffee, but I’ve found Cocoa Cinnamon’s dedication to paying its employees a living wage just as impressive as its drinks.
For Cocoa Cinnamon’s founders, paying a living wage was part of the plan. Leon Grodski de Barrera and Areli Barrera de Grodski sold coffee off the back of a bicycle at the Durham Farmers Market for 18 months. That initial success spawned one brick and mortar store, with another in the works. As the company grew, its founders continued to emphasize fairly paying their employees. There are various ways to calculate a living wage, which typically ranges from $10.83 to $12.33 an hour, depending on health benefits.
“When people get paid properly and can make a living they’re more apt to stick around, and that helps the business in the long term,” Leon said. “When people do well, businesses do well. We pay living wage because we believe in it, but it actually rewards us as well because customers in Durham will support us.”
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In early March, Cocoa Cinnamon became one of the first companies in Durham certified as paying a living wage, thanks to efforts to streamline that process by the Durham Living Wage Project. Customers can look for an orange logo in business windows in Durham County as part of the ambitious, voluntary certification program.
In order to qualify, employers must verify they pay a living wage, fill out a certification form and be formally approved by project volunteers. A handful of businesses, including Fullsteam Brewery, have raised employee wages to meet those conditions.
Cocoa Cinnamon employee Susie Zadeh credits her job with helping her build a stable, fulfilling life in Durham, including buying a house. “You feel a sense of appreciation, a sense of dedication, and a sense of future,” she said.
Durham is known for innovative thinking and leadership, and the living wage project is an example of that. From the Bull City’s downtown renaissance to entrepreneurship endeavors, Durham is quickly becoming a model to for other cities to follow. In fact, the program is not novel; it’s modeled after the Just Economics pioneering campaign in Asheville. That program has certified nearly 400 businesses with 3,000 employees since 2008.
That momentum holds true in Durham. Since launching in March, companies certified by the project have nearly doubled. There are more than 30 businesses and 15 nonprofits employing more than 1,100 employees who make a living wage. Add to those numbers city and county employees who also make a living wage, and it grows to 10,000. The economic and social impact is just beginning.
Nearly one in five Durham residents live in poverty, with many full-time, year-round workers earning only about $15,000 per year to support themselves and their families. Federal and state minimum wage clocks in at $7.25 an hour, and it often doesn’t cover basic expenses such as housing and health care. Those expenses represent broader issues our neighbors face, and supporting a living wage can be part of the solution.
Each issue is connected to the other, and paying employees a living wage can often have positive effects in those areas. A living wage is by no means the only solution to economic success and Durham’s future, but it’s a start. Companies paying a living wage locally set the model for future businesses and employees to be attracted to Durham and set the stage for economic prosperity in the Bull City.
The Living Wage Project extends beyond trendy coffee shops and restaurants. Other businesses, like Environs Landscaping, El Futuro, and Comfort Engineers are certified, too. Project leaders want to reach a comprehensive list of business leaders from several sectors. That progress means livelihood and wellbeing for employees like Zadeh.
“On a minimum wage, you can’t think about (the future) because you can’t build for it; you can’t save for it, and that’s hard,” Zadeh said.
Supporting a living wage shows a commitment to the city’s future, and a community I’d like to see flourish in Durham. Supporting employees like Zadeh, and hundreds of others, who earn a living wage is one of the first steps we can take to honor that commitment.
Elizabeth Poindexter is marketing coordinator at DurhamCares. You can reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.