Last Thursday, nearly two-dozen Durham service workers, some dressed in their work uniforms, descended on the Community Family Life & Recreation Center in Lyon Park to share stories of employers that make billions while paying them pennies, and yet steal the skin of that coin from them, sexually harass them, and create unsafe work environments.

They stood resolute at the podium, relaying their struggles to feed their children, keep a roof over their heads, and—though some are seriously ill—afford health care.

Their testimonies offered evidence of the Bull City’s ugly underbelly. The city’s prosperity has garnered national recognition, often overshadowing the challenges faced by service workers and community artists who were attracted to the inclusiveness in Durham’s DNA but who are now finding it increasingly difficult to live here.

“We are here tonight because workers’ stories are powerful,” said Cierra Brown, a McDonald’s worker and a moderator of “Working in Durham: A People’s Hearing,” which was organized by NC Raise Up/Fight for $15.

One of those stories came from Devin Evans, who showed up in a gray T-shirt and cap, both bearing a McDonald’s logo. 

Evans said that, despite his long hours as a cashier, he enjoys his job. Prior to working at McDonald’s, he said, he worked at a fast-casual chain, where, at age seventeen, he had to contend with a “touchy boss” who rubbed his leg, pressed up against his body, and showed him inappropriate pictures during and after work. Evans left that job, but not before learning that at least fifteen other teenagers were subjected to sexual harassment by the manager, who threatened to fire them if they complained.

Wanda Coker says she’s worked at Burger King, where she’s now an assistant manager, for two decades.

“It took me twenty years to get to fifteen dollars an hour,” Coker said. She struggles with diabetes and kidney failure that requires her to be on dialysis three days a week because she needs a kidney transplant that she can’t afford. As a consequence of “a low paycheck to live on, [no] health benefits or paid sick days, my reward is a pile of bills I can’t afford to pay,” she said.

Nigel Williams now works at Chick-fil-A, but he used to work at McDonald’s, where he says he was regularly burned by “old, faulty equipment.”

“But we still came in and put in the work, [despite] the burns, and we need more money,” Williams said. “It’s really hard to save when you’re paid low wages every day, and you’re [living] check to check.” 

Allan Freyer, the director of workers’ rights at the NC Justice Center, told the group that it’s important to see the big picture when discussing poverty wages, wage theft, sexual harassment, and unsafe workplace conditions. 

“All of these problems are tools used by big, highly profitable corporations to squeeze workers’ paychecks, to break workers’ power, so that they can make more money for themselves and their investors,” Freyer said. “One way we see it happening is that workers today make sixteen billion dollars less in their paychecks than they did in 2004.”

He continued: “For poverty wages, two-thirds of the folks working at minimum wage are women. In North Carolina, women make about eighty-two cents for every dollar that white men make. For women of color, it’s sixty-two cents. It will take women of color more than a hundred years to catch up to white folks with the wages that they earn.”

And while minimum-wage workers are supposed to be protected from wage theft by state law, one out of ten workers actually makes less than minimum wage—and for those who rely on tips, three of ten do. 

In addition, Freyer said, over the past seven years, there has been a 900 percent increase in working-conditions complaints that have not been investigated by the N.C. Department of Labor. 

The workers say they want at least $15 an hour, but they also want to form a union to collectively bargain with area businesses. 

A union, they say, would give them the means to push back against employers who brush aside their grievances and retaliate against them for complaining.

The city council members at the hearing—Javiera Caballero, Jillian Johnson, and Mark-Anthony Middleton—voiced support for the workers. While the city is prohibited by state law from raising the city’s minimum wage, the council recently approved a living wage for city employees and established a workers’ rights commission. 

The wage increase for city employees, Caballero said, “sets the tone and expectation of what we expect for other employers in Durham. I think the bare minimum should be fifteen dollars.”

Freyer pointed out that there are actions local governments can take to help workers. 

For instance, if a private business receives public funds but gets even one complaint about wage theft, sexual harassment, or unsafe working conditions, it shouldn’t “get a dime of public money.” 

City officials can also target wage thieves for criminal prosecution by referring cases to the district attorney.   

Freyer suggested that Durham service workers might draw more blood by filing complaints with the city’s new workers’ rights commission than with the N.C. Department of Labor, which has had an adversarial relationship with workers. 

Instead, the commission can file those complaints on their behalf. The NCDOL might be more apt to respond quickly, he said, especially if faced with the prospect of unwanted media attention.

Contact staff writer Thomasi McDonald at 

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