Durham County Commissioners moved towards raising wages for some public employees this week, calling the decision “a great holiday gift.”

In a unanimous vote on Monday, the commissioners approved a proposal that would increase Durham Public Schools classified employees’ minimum wage to $15/hour starting in January.

Speaking with a large red and white “Fight for 15” sign over her right shoulder, Commissioner Heidi Carter made the motion to raise wages towards the end of the meeting, calling it “the right thing to do.”

“We know that the classified staff work incredibly hard,” she said. “They’re incredibly devoted to the children in our schools in various forms. It’s just a matter of needing the financial plan and then an implementation strategy and a timeline.”

Classified, or non-licensed, school employees include janitors, bus drivers, and cafeteria staff. Carter’s proposal asks the county manager and staff to work with Durham Public Schools to come up with a cost estimate, financial plan, and implementation plan for all of the school system’s classified employees. It also calls for implementation to begin in January.

By then, the county will have more information about tax revenue and the results of a county audit, she added.

Commissioner Ellen Reckhow, who seconded the motion, added that even if plans take slightly longer to come to fruition, the county could still retroactively implement the new minimum wage to be effective January 1, providing classified employees with back pay.

Several commissioners noted that they’ve been working towards this goal for a while now and that it’s always been their intent to raise minimum wages to $15 an hour. In her remarks, Carter stressed the importance of acting swiftly.

“The good thing is our community would see that we’re committing to this tonight, and our public employees will go home for Thanksgiving knowing that this change will be happening, this urgent change,” she said shortly before the vote.

Chair Wendy Jacobs echoed the sentiment.

“Thinking about the holidays and our classified staff knowing that this is going to be happening for them, I think it makes a great holiday gift for them,” she added.

Commissioner Brenda Howerton explained her support stating, “I’ve been committed to it all along, and I’m glad we’ve gotten to this point.”

The entire discussion took less than 10 minutes, which is partly due to the lengthy discussions the board has already held on the subject. Durham residents have also consistently rallied behind efforts to raise the wage. Durham for All, the Durham Association of Educators, and other groups campaigned for the increase, calling on supporters to reach out to commissioners and voice support for the measure.

Durham residents clearly answered that call.

“We have probably received, I don’t even know, hundreds and hundreds of emails,” Jacobs said as the commission began discussing the subject on Monday. “Something we probably received more emails about than maybe any topic over the last four years, at least within a short time period.”

Howerton also acknowledged receiving multiple phone calls in support of the $15 minimum over the weekend.

The push to raise pay for Durham Public Schools’ classified employees is part of a broader movement locally and nationally towards a $15 minimum wage. President-elect Joe Biden supports a nationwide $15 minimum wage, though Republican Senators appear committed to squashing those efforts.

Locally, Carter hopes the raise will not only help school employees and their families, but ripple across Durham County.

“All five of us want to pay $15 an hour to all of the public employees, right?” she asked, referring to her fellow commissioners. “Not only that, we want to put market pressure on the private industry to also pay $15 an hour minimum wage.”

The current body of the Durham County Commissioners approved the plan, but by January, a new board will be sworn in. Reckhow and board Vice Chair James Hill are leaving, but their replacements aren’t inclined to change course. Newly elected Nimasheena Burns and Nida Allam were both endorsed by the Durham Association of Educators and the progressive Durham People’s Alliance (as well as the INDY).

And Allam campaigned on a progressive platform that focused in part on raising wages.

“The commission must ensure part-time [Durham Public Schools] employees are paid a minimum of $15 an hour,” she told the INDY in her candidate questionnaire. “This provides immediate relief for these community members and their families while also setting a standard around our shared values as a community.”

If anything, Allam will push her fellow commissioners to go farther.

“However, $15 an hour still does not represent a living wage for Durham—whatever policy we put forth, it should have the ultimate goal of reaching $23 an hour to actually represent a living wage for the area,” she added in her questionnaire.

Watch the Durham County Commissioners Monday meeting for more information, beginning just after the 4-hour mark.

Follow Interim News Editor Eric Ginsburg on Twitter or send an email to eginsburg@indyweek.com

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