Let's be real: the federal minimum wage—$7.25 an hour—is laughable. To make matters worse, North Carolina prohibits local governments from setting their own wage floors. So in the more progressive parts of the state—Durham, Asheville, and, most recently, Orange County—living-wage campaigns have formed to certify businesses that don't pay their employees like shit.
The Orange County Living Wage Project, which launched last November, has attracted fifty-eight employers—nonprofit, for-profit, and public entities that now pay all employees at least $12.75 per hour (or $11.25 per hour if the employer provides health insurance). The organization, led by Susan Romaine and Orange County Commissioner Mark Marcoplos, estimates it has lifted the wages of nearly six thousand employees a combined $526,000 in just six months.
That half-million-dollar mark calls for a celebration, Marcoplos says, and at 7 p.m. on May 3, the OCLWP will throw down at Vimala's Curryblossom Cafe in Chapel Hill (a certified living-wage employer, of course) with some live music and a screening of a new OCLWP video.
Marcoplos tells the INDY that adding Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools and Orange County Schools to the OCLWP's ranks in January was a significant coup. "They had a lot of part-time workers they were paying below the living wage," Marcoplos says. "And they took a look at it and decided the right thing to do was include money in the next budget [for the wage increases]. That's what really helped get us up over five hundred thousand dollars."
The OCLWP's list includes everything from health care to automotive companies, florists to frame makers. Though spots like Glasshalfull and Joe Van Gogh are on board, Marcoplos reports that cajoling restaurants has proven difficult.
"Waiters and waitresses typically make good tip money," he says. "But usually the dishwasher ends up left in the lurch."
There are limits to the project's reach. Employers that are part of the OCLWP can—and sometimes do—hire subcontractors who may not pay a living wage. "We can't really control that," Marcoplos says. "If you hire a sub, you don't have the right to demand that they show you their payroll."
Marcoplos adds: "I'm a business owner"—his green-building company is also part of the OCLWP—"and I know it's not easy to change your budget, give out raises. I think the best thing we do here, given the constraints, is build awareness about companies that are paying a living wage and still prospering. If somebody has a better idea of how to do that, believe me, we're all ears."