If the city of Raleigh one day got a bug up its butt and decided it wanted to hike its minimum wage—like 29 states and many other large cities across the country have done—well, tough luck. The General Assembly doesn't allow that. Nor, as of 2013, does it permit cities to require their contractors to pay living wages.
But Raleigh does have options. It could, for instance, provide a living wage for all of its employees, like eight other North Carolina cities and counties have already done, starting with Durham in the late '90s. (It's not immediately clear how many city workers would be affected by such an ordinance; the INDY placed a records request for that information late last week, but that request had not been fulfilled by press time.) Or, also like Durham, Raleigh could nudge companies to provide a living wage through a certification process. It could also incentivize developers to pay their workers better.
But none of those things has happened. In fact, none of them has ever even come up for debate.
"I can say I have not heard it," says Councilor Bonner Gaylord, who has been on Council since 2009. "I can't remember any specific conversation, city-related, where it's been brought up or discussed."
Perhaps that's about to change. On Monday evening, Gaylord, widely considered a future mayoral aspirant, told the INDY that he would ask the city attorney's office to determine what the Council's legal possibilities are. Mary-Ann Baldwin, another potential mayoral candidate in 2017, added that if the issue came before Council, "of course we'd consider it."
That's a conversation activists want to have, both in the capital and across the state. The Legislature has made clear its disinterest in a higher minimum wage (currently set at the federal level of $7.25 an hour), paid sick leave or a multitude of other things that might help the 1.7 million North Carolinians who live below the federal poverty line. It thus falls to local governments and local businesses to nudge the ball forward.
This week, as part of a national #wageweek campaign organized by Interfaith Worker Justice, the NC Justice Center and North Carolina labor groups, among others, are taking to social media to both highlight local companies that have voluntarily raised their wage floors and press politicians at all levels to tackle this issue head-on.
"I hope this week would build awareness among the general public that workers deserve a raise," says MaryBe McMillan, secretary-treasurer of the NC AFL-CIO. "It can't be the new normal that people have to work two or three jobs to make ends meet."
But increasingly, that is exactly what's happening, both in North Carolina and throughout the country. The economic recovery has been "pretty broadly concentrated in low-income jobs," says Ana Pardo, campaign and outreach coordinator of NC Justice's Workers' Rights Project. (Pardo says that before landing her current job, she spent 18 months out of work. "It was so hard to find jobs that were decent.")
A report last year from the NC Budget and Tax Center—another branch of NC Justice—indicated that a living wage for a family of four in North Carolina is just over $52,000, which equals more than $25 an hour for a one-worker family, and more than $12 an hour if both parents work full-time.
In the state's more expensive counties—including Wake, Durham, Orange and Chatham—that number runs closer to $60,000. And yet, if both adults work full-time and make minimum wage, the family will only bring in about $30,000. That's not enough to make ends meet.
Contrary to conservative claims, there's little evidence that raising the minimum wage hurts job growth. According to a report this week from the watchdog group Integrity Florida, the 25 states where the minimum wage ticked up in the last year saw job growth of 2.9 percent; in the states where the minimum wage remained the same, job growth increased by 2.6 percent.
And raising the minimum wage is also politically popular. In a Public Policy Polling survey released last August, 58 percent of North Carolina residents favored raising the minimum wage, and 63 percent voiced support for allowing local governments to enact living-wage ordinances.
But given the prevailing attitude on Jones Street—obsequious as it is to Art Pope and his allies—activists aren't optimistic. Several minimum-wage bills were introduced this session but went nowhere. Neither did bills that would have mandated paid sick time or provided additional protections for caregivers.
Eventually, however, "our expectation is that elected officials have to bend to the public will," says Allan Freyer, director of the Workers' Rights Project. "... If legislators are not going to bow to the public will and raise the minimum wage, they'll be help accountable by their constituents. That's how democracy works."
Meanwhile, activists are looking toward the private sector. In Raleigh, for example, they're using #wageweek to praise a number of local companies who have already raised their wage floors above the legal minimum, including Empire Properties, Square Rabbit, Boulted Bread, lucettegrace and Foundation.
Foundation co-owner Vincent Whitehurst says that it benefits his bar to pay more than the minimum, which for tipped workers is $2.13 an hour. "You're not gonna be attracting the best people who want to work with you," Whitehurst says. Moreover, he adds, that's just not the kind of company he wants to run, even if the bar business often comes with a low profit margin.
"I would always be an advocate of doing better than the minimum," he says. "Anything less is illegal. That's pretty bad when you're riding that line."
This article appeared in print with the headline "Paying for poverty"