Just $4,916.00: that’s the amount you have to live on for an entire year if you earn minimum wage and rent a one-bedroom apartment in Durham County.
How does that calculation work? Simple math: $15,080.00 is what a business can get away with paying a full-time worker at the current $7.25 minimum wage; $10,164 is what it’ll cost on average for a one-bedroom apartment during that year. Subtract those and you have $4,916.00 left for taxes, groceries, medical care, clothing, utilities, car insurance, gas, and child care for an entire year.
Our existing minimum wage is a poverty wage, especially given the rising cost of food, housing, and health care, and other factors unique to North Carolina. North Carolina is among twenty states that have not expanded Medicaid, it is the only state to repeal its state income tax credit helping the working poor, and it remains the tenth hungriest state in the country, with one in ten kids hungry on a regular basis. Below the poverty line, minimum wage certainly won’t allow you to grab a quick meal at your closest restaurant, and if you have a flat tire, you can’t afford to replace it.
In spite of increasing statistical and anecdotal evidence that North Carolina’s minimum wage cannot keep people healthy and alive, it hasn’t budged a penny since 2009, while twenty-nine other states have raised theirs above the federal minimum of $7.25.
So why haven’t we?
North Carolina is not a home-rule state. This means that cities and towns don’t have the ability to enact laws that would benefit the state’s most vulnerable communities, including the working poor. In home-rule states, local governments are granted much broader power to make decisions and enact laws concerning wages. In contrast, North Carolina cities and counties only have the powers explicitly granted to them by the General Assembly. Preemption describes the use of state law to nullify local ordinances created in response to a clear community need for higher wages. Recent legislation explicitly carves out wages as exempt from the control of local municipalities.
While the General Assembly has avoided raising the state minimum wage, and actively sought to prevent action at the local level, the state budget released on June 18 giving state employees an unprecedented $15 minimum wage is a tacit acknowledgment of this need. Policymakers face increasing public pressure to extend the state worker considerations to all workers in the state. For example, legislation recently introduced by the Raising Wages Coalition would gradually raise the minimum wage to $15 an hour by 2020.
A growing living-wage movement of business owners, nonprofits, faith communities, community leaders, and local elected officials, isn’t waiting. The Durham Living Wage Project and Orange County Living Wage oversee voluntary certification programs for employers who are paying living wages to their employees.
The living wage is calculated based on a formula that says housing should be less than 30 percent of a worker’s income. Because housing costs differ, the living wage fluctuates based on average fair market rents in an area. The living wage is the minimum required for a single person to put a roof over their head and food on their table without the help of Durham or Orange County or the local food bank. For Durham, that’s $13.35 an hour or $11.85 with employer-provided health insurance benefit. In Orange County, it’s $13.70 an hour or $12.20 with insurance.
In just a handful of years, DLWP and OCLW have certified more than three hundred employers in our communities, including living wages paid by the municipalities of Durham, Chapel Hill, Carrboro, and Hillsborough themselves. Certified businesses span a variety of industries that make up our local economy. For example, farms, restaurants and grocers such as Funny Girl Farms, Firsthand Foods, Vimala’s Curry Blossom Café, Carburritos, Luna Rotisserie and Empanada, and Durham Catering and Weaver Street Market; bars and coffee shops such as Fullsteam, Mystery Brewery, Cocoa Cinnamon, Bean Traders, and Gray Squirrel; and automotive services such as Auto Logic, F&F Automotive, Yeargan’s Top, and Notch Auto all pay a living wage. Add to that childcare, education, and arts organizations like CHICLE, Preschool at Brinkley Baptist Church, Family Preschool, Latino Educational Achievement Partnership, and Ninth Street Dance, and we have the beginnings of a living wage economy. (The INDY is also a DLWP-certified employer.)
Living wages represent a wise investment in the health of our local economy, creating long-term positive gains beyond their immediate economic exchange. When workers earn a living wage, they can pay rent, get medical care at reasonable costs when needed, and even fix that flat tire and get to work on time. They might even be able to get a haircut or enjoy a meal with loved ones at the living wage-certified businesses down the street, without debating between basic needs and emotional needs. And business owners have noted the benefits of paying a living wage including less turnover, higher productivity, and increased investment from employees and customers alike.
So why does this matter and what can you do? We know that the minimum wage is a poverty wage and must be raised. And you can make a difference in the community by voting in the upcoming elections and supporting candidates who will fight to raise the minimum wage at the state level. If you are an employer, follow the lead of others in your community who are doing right by their employees. As consumers, we can make choices to support local businesses that pay a living wage. Seek out certified employers. Look for the sticker on the door. Show your support for their leadership by investing your dollars in the living wage-certified businesses that are helping to create a more sustainable economy that works for all of us.