It’s time to give workers a living wage

Protesters gather to support raising the minimum wage to $15/hour in Durham, N.C. Tuesday, November 10, 2015. About 150 supporters gathered at the City Plaza to listen to speeches before marching to Durham City Hall about two blocks away.
Protesters gather to support raising the minimum wage to $15/hour in Durham, N.C. Tuesday, November 10, 2015. About 150 supporters gathered at the City Plaza to listen to speeches before marching to Durham City Hall about two blocks away. cliddy@newsobserver.com

On Labor Day, the nation honors the contributions of the American worker. Every day in North Carolina, a growing roster of employers affirms the value of their employees by paying them a living wage.

More than 600 living-wage certified employers in Orange, Durham and Buncombe counties voluntarily pay wages that are substantially higher than the federal minimum of $7.25.

Ben Skelton, of Skelton’s Landscaping Service in Carrboro, is one of 127 living-wage employers in Orange County. Skelton pays living wages “because we recognize the value of our employees and their contribution to our success. I believe their compensation should honor the work they do with me daily.”

Orange County Living Wage, a 501(c)3 nonprofit, certifies employers who pay a living wage of $13.15, or $11.65 with health insurance. Our roster includes restaurants, hair salons, automotive shops, nonprofits, municipal and county governments, churches and plumbers.

North Carolina’s hourly minimum wage is mired at the federal minimum of $7.25. Wages rise according to where you set the floor.

The current minimum of $7.25 has been called a “starvation wage”; $8 or $9 an hour is a “just-surviving” wage. As service industries grow, the economy adds more low-paying jobs in areas like home health, food service and restaurants, entertainment and recreation. Without higher wages, we’re adding lots of jobs that barely sustain lots of people. Hard workers are falling further behind as the cost of everything rises – including rent.

Our living-wage formula is based on housing costs. We use a four-year average of federal Fair Market Rent from Durham, Orange, Chatham and Alamance counties to calculate the income required for a one-bedroom apartment. For our area, that’s $13.15 an hour, with 30 percent of salary spent on housing.

The living wage is just that – enough to live on. With no luxuries, extras or frills.

For example, the National Low Income Housing Coalition reports that in our state a full-time worker needs an hourly wage of $15.79 to afford a two-bedroom apartment. Anyone earning $13.15 an hour renting a one-bedroom apartment is not living large. Add food, utilities, transportation and child care, and the money is quickly spent. Moving from minimum wage to a living wage, however, is a step up from poverty and toward the middle class.

And when you look at workplace dynamics, both employees and employers can benefit from higher wages.

Work ethics and customer service improve when people know they’re valued.

Maya Brown, a resident life specialist at Chapel Hill’s living-wage-certified Carol Woods Retirement Community, says that because employees are paid well, “the work ethic here is better, and I think our nursing staff is very motivated to do a good job.”

Ken Reeb, Carol Woods’ vice president of finance and planning, confirms the “huge correlation between the service you provide and the degree to which you compensate your people.”

Better-paid employees stay in their jobs longer, accumulate more skill, take less time off and work more effectively.

A living wage helps attract more skilled employees – and keeps them on the job.

Business owners know firsthand the productivity and skills they lose when staff resign. It takes time and effort to fully train new hires. Frequent turnover is a huge drain on resources.

“I want to pay people enough that they will stay,” says Ari Sanders, general manager of Hillsborough’s Mystery Brewing and Public House. “The easiest way to keep employees is to let them know they’ve got some money coming.”

Living wages put money back into the community.

Wage raises tied to living-wage certification put $575,000 more annually into the pockets of Orange County workers – some of which goes straight to the local economy.

Eric Knight, of Carrboro’s Steel String Brewery, says one reason his business pays living wages is so workers can “better support local community businesses like ours.”

Employers, consumers and residents can shape their local economy from the ground up. One by one, Orange County employers are choosing to raise their wage floors and put workers on a firmer footing toward prosperity.

Mark Marcoplos, an Orange County Commissioner and living wage employer with Marcoplos Construction, says that paying living wages “exemplifies the values of our residents.”

We encourage North Carolina residents to put their values into action and support employers who pay workers enough to live on.

“Shop living wage” throughout September during our consumer campaign. Find hundreds of living-wage certified businesses. Eat, shop and spend with the employers and employees who make living wages work in North Carolina.

Claire Horne is the communications and outreach coordinator for Orange County Living Wage, a nonprofit located in Chapel Hill working to raise wages and create prosperous communities.