State Democratic lawmakers and workers’ rights advocates on Thursday demanded swift passage of legislation that would raise North Carolina’s minimum wage to $15 an hour.

The lawmakers and advocates have an uphill battle: neither of the so-called “Up Minimum Wage” bills (Senate Bill 673 and House Bill 612) has a single Republican cosponsor in the GOP-controlled General Assembly. 

But that didn’t stop wage-hike advocates from holding a press conference Thursday to trumpet the merits of the legislation.

House Democratic Whip Susan Fisher of Buncombe County said even though she has not heard GOP leaders in the General Assembly voice opposition to a minimum wage increase, she pointed to “a global consciousness of making sure that business owners are protected rather than workers.”

“And I think that’s where they’re coming from most of the time without really coming out and saying, ‘No, we will not support the people who are doing the work,’” Fisher said. “Instead, they say, ‘We must support the owners of businesses.’”

Both bills call for the raising of the state’s minimum wage from $7.25 an hour to $15 an hour by 2023 and indexed to the cost of living increases. The bills also would end the subminimum wage paid to persons with disabilities and phase out the same subminimum wage for tipped workers, which is currently $2.13 per hour. Finally, passage of the legislation would repeal exemptions for agricultural and domestic workers. 

As of January 1, 28 states and the District of Columbia had a minimum wage higher than $7.25; six states have enacted laws gradually increasing the hourly minimum wage each year until it hits $15, according to data compiled by the National Conference of State Legislatures

North Carolina’s minimum wage, meanwhile, has been stuck at $7.25 an hour—also the federal minimum wage—for nearly 12 years. 

On Thursday, Chanelle Croxton, organizing director of the North Carolina chapter of the National Domestic Workers Alliance, said raising the minimum wage is essential for creating thriving communities. 

“Nowhere in the United States can a full-time worker without children making the minimum wage afford housing and other basic necessities, let alone workers with children and families,” said Croxton, who later added that “a minimum wage is actually a poverty wage.”

Advocates pointed to research that indicates far-reaching benefits of raising the current minimum wage. Benefits include fewer people in poverty, improved physical and mental health, and a decrease in suicide rates and child neglect.

“This legislation will deliver a crucial raise for North Carolina’s working families,” said Fisher, one of the House bill’s primary sponsors. “It is time to lift our state’s minimum wage and ensure that the workers who keep our economy running are paid enough to survive.”

Cummie Davis, a certified nursing assistant, also spoke Thursday, saying she has watched health care workers being underpaid for decades. She works every day to provide care for elderly patients and residents with mental disabilities. Her duties include helping patients with their daily needs, preparing meals, administering medications, housekeeping, “and so much more.”

She works two physically demanding jobs, at a group home and home health care service, she said.

“I work two jobs to earn one full-time paycheck,” Davis said. “I do all of this with patience, love, and respect for the people I care for. I go above and beyond the call of duty. But I still make less than $15 an hour, with no health care benefits, no 401(k), no paid sick days, and I haven’t taken a vacation in five years.”

Jennifer Copeland, executive director of the North Carolina Council of Churches in Raleigh, said raising the minimum wage is a matter of human dignity.

“How much is an hour of labor really worth?” Copeland asked. “Can a day’s labor be enough for a person to actually live on for that day? Not even living extravagantly, just safely and comfortably?

“Why do people need to work for $7.25 an hour when CEO salaries are in the millions and stock earnings are in the billions?” Copeland continued. “If we pay people a fair wage, everyone will still have enough money. We don’t have to raise prices to raise wages. That’s a lie told from the top.”

In recent years, Durham has been at the center of the struggle to pay workers a living wage. 

Thanks largely to the awareness efforts of NC Raise Up for $15, the City Council in 2019 voted to increase the pay of its roughly 200 part-time workers up to $15.46 an hour.

The Durham County Board of Commissioners followed suit in November when they approved a proposal that would increase the minimum wage to $15 an hour for Durham Public Schools support staff. 

During Thursday’s press conference, Senator Natalie Murdock of Durham County noted that women of color make up a disproportionate share of the nation’s low-wage earners.

Murdock along with Senators Wiley Nickel of Wake County and Valarie Foushee of Orange County cosponsored the Senate bill. Representatives Marcia Morey and Vernetta Alston of Durham County cosponsored the House bill. 

“On average, Black women in the U.S. are paid 38 percent less than White men and 21 percent less than White women,” Murdock said. “Raising the state’s minimum wage is one of the many ways that we can level the playing field to make sure that workers shouldn’t have to work three or four jobs just to put food on their table and keep a roof over their head.”

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