When Orange County builder Mark Marcoplos told me earlier this month that it’s time for a living wage debate, he was on to something.
Orange County’s Living Wage Campaign hit the ground running this month, enlisting more than 30 local businesses to agree upfront to pay their employees a “living wage,” or about $12.75 per hour in Orange County. Earlier this year, Durham launched its own campaign, guaranteeing workers hourly pay of at least $12.53.
And this week, Wake County commissioners agreed to raise the minimum wage for all county workers to a solid $13.50 an hour.
Fittingly, on Thursday, the N.C. Justice Center, a nonprofit advocating for social equity and the poor, released a new report that argues raising wages for public employees is a boost to workers, the economy and the local government budget.
Alexandra Forter Sirota is the director of the Justice Center’s Budget & Tax Center project. “The choice to cut state taxes has held down public sector and private sector wages alike,” says Sirota. “Local government workers have seen their wages fall to nearly $2,800 less per year than before the Great Recession: this has held back their spending locally, limiting the economy’s ability to reach its full potential.”
The report notes a number of North Carolina municipalities and counties have already embraced the issue, signaling widespread concern that the federal minimum wage of $7.25 per hour is wholly inadequate. In addition to Durham and Chapel Hill, municipalities such as Greensboro, Greenville and Asheville have all approved living wage increases for their workers.
The City of Raleigh, not so much. The report notes the lowest paid employees for the city do, in fact, make minimum wage.
Of course, state law forbids municipalities from imposing any wage requirements on the private sector and public contractors, but local governments can still take actions to benefit their own workers.
The argument is simple: Because a living wage puts more money in a worker’s pocket, they can spend more in the local economy, thus increasing local sales tax collections and driving up the price of housing, which, in turn, charges property tax collections.