The state budget that became law Tuesday contains at least one historic change. North Carolina will become the first state to guarantee a $15 minimum wage to most of its state employees.
About 9,000 state workers had been making less than $15 an hour but will now get a raise, according to Robert Broome, executive director of the main lobbying group for state workers, the State Employees Association of North Carolina.
The new minimum equates to $31,200 a year for a full-time employee.
Lawmakers on Tuesday reversed Gov. Roy Cooper's veto of the budget.
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One of the people getting a raise is Sekia Royall, a food services worker at the Cherry Hospital mental facility in Goldsboro. With five years on the job, she makes around $27,300 a year. So for her, the new state budget will mean an extra $3,900 a year. She's grateful, even if she wishes it were more.
"I will be able to afford my medicine, invest back in my education," the 46-year-old said. "Not much, though."
Royall said she also wishes the raise to a $15 minimum wage applied to all state employees.
The new minimum wage applies to most jobs in state agencies and the UNC System. But it excludes temporary workers, even those who work full-time. It also won't apply to any public school or community college employees who currently make less than $15 an hour.
That's received the attention of SEANC as well as the smaller state and local government union that Royall belongs to, UE Local 150.
Broome said the main group that's left out are public school bus drivers, teaching assistants and custodians. Many of them make around $12 an hour, and by Broome's count, there are about 45,000 of them in North Carolina.
Groups like SEANC and the North Carolina Association of Educators want more of those employees to join their ranks, which would increase their influence at the legislature, where the budget gets written every year.
Despite omitting some workers, the budget has won broad praise from SEANC, many of whose members will receive large raises. The NCAE has been more critical.
"The response from our members overall, so far, has been extremely positive," Broome said.
NCAE President Mark Jewell said most teaching assistants will get around a $400 raise next year. According to state salary pay scales, even the highest-paid teaching assistants don't make as much as a first-year teacher, who earns a minimum of $35,000 a year.
"We were, of course, deeply disappointed that the General Assembly left out additional compensation for our classified employees and our support professionals," Jewell said. "They could've done so much more. Gov. Cooper's budget actually had more."
If the legislature had listened to Gov. Roy Cooper's budget suggestions, Jewell said, teaching assistants would've received a raise of more than $1,200.
Legislative Republican leaders in recent days have been deeply critical of the budget proposal put forth by Cooper, a Democrat. An analysis by the legislature's nonpartisan fiscal research staff found Cooper's budget would've led to deficits in the future. Cooper strongly denied those findings Wednesday when he announced his veto of the GOP-written budget, which he criticized for maintaining upcoming tax cuts for corporations and the wealthy.
Jewell agreed with Cooper.
"They're making choices to make corporate boardrooms a priority over a school classroom," he said.
UE Local 150 members echoed that concern. Union leaders said the legislature would've had $900 million more to spend if it hadn't gone ahead with further tax cuts.
Darrion Smith, a health-care technician for the Department of Health and Human Services who's one of the union leaders, said it's "despicable" that state workers weren't already making $15 an hour and that realistically they need more. Many state jobs are based in the Triangle, where the cost of living has increased substantially in recent years.
"With inflation and the way the world has progressed, we actually should be making $23 or $24 an hour just to really get the basic needs," Smith said. "Everything goes up. They raised up the health insurance. Food has gone up. Rent has gone up because of gentrification."
Jewell also raised concerns that veteran teachers have been left out of previous rounds of raises and will be left out again in this new budget.
And it's not just in schools where veteran employees might feel disrespected, said Royall, the Cherry Hospital food services worker. She feels badly for her more experienced co-workers whose experience isn't winning them any additional pay.
"You have somebody who's been there 15 years who's making as much now as someone who's been there six months," Royall said.