The national movement to raise the minimum wage to at least $15 an hour is gaining traction in North Carolina.
The Durham County Board of Commissioners voted on Monday to approve a $15 minimum wage for the county’s classified school employees.
Two days later, state Senator Natalie Murdock (who represents southern Durham County) co-sponsored legislation that would require state education officials to study raising the salaries for non-certified public school employees across the state to $15 an hour.
Murdock applauded the county commissioners’ vote that will raise wages for cafeteria workers, bus drivers, and custodians by about $1,200 a year.
She wrote on Twitter that memories of her grandmother as a cafeteria worker making less than $3 an hour in Guilford County helped to fuel her support for the Senate bill: “Study Non-Certified School Employee Salaries.”
“Inspired by the Civil Rights Movement that was taking off around her, she started a strike to fight for higher wages,” she wrote about her grandmother. “I signed onto this bill that will study what funds are needed to raise the wages of non-certified employees across the state. This is the first step to raising these wages. Still fighting like my grandma taught me.”
My grandmother was a cafeteria worker in Guilford County #NC making less than $3 an hr. Inspired by the civil rights movement that was taking off around her, she started a strike to fight for higher wages. pic.twitter.com/1zYY8SVINB
— Senator Natalie Murdock (@NatalieforNC) January 28, 2021
The state Senate bill’s primary sponsor is Don Davis, a Democrat who represents Pitt and Greene counties and serves on the General Assembly’s joint legislative education oversight committee.
“I am proud to be a co-sponsor,” Murdock wrote in an email to the INDY on Thursday. “Sen. Davis has been fighting for this for some time, but we have not had a study to determine what it would cost, and consider how to get these employees to $15 an hour. [The study] would serve as the foundation for a bill and full budget recommendation.”
U.S. House and Senate Democrats this week also introduced the “Raise The Wage Act” designed by Senator Bernie Sanders and Representative Bobby Scott (of Virginia) to increase the federal minimum wage from $7.25 to $15 by 2025. Two of North Carolina’s U.S. House members—David Price and Deborah Ross—praised the bill.
“I am proud to co-sponsor the #RaisetheWage Act to gradually increase the minimum wage to $15 by 2025,” Ross wrote on Twitter. “When Americans are struggling due to the pandemic, this bill is a step in the right direction to ensure everyone who works hard can provide for themselves and their loved ones.”
I’m proud to cosponsor the #RaisetheWage Act to gradually increase the minimum wage to $15 by 2025. When Americans are struggling due to the pandemic, this bill is a step in the right direction to ensure everyone who works hard can provide for themselves and their loved ones.
— Congresswoman Deborah Ross (@RepDeborahRoss) January 26, 2021
The Durham Public Schools wage increase for non-certified workers comes nearly two years after Durham City Council members rejected Police Chief Cerelyn “CJ” Davis’s request for 18 additional officers and instead agreed that the city should pay its roughly 200 part-time workers up to $15.46 an hour.
The pay increase for school system employees was all but assured after an initial vote last month. Since then, new county commissioners were sworn in, and this week they unanimously approved the planned raises.
“This has been at the top of our list for a long time,” Durham Public Schools Superintendent Pascal Mubenga said in a statement. “We are profoundly grateful to Durham County for finding the resources to bring us to parity with city and county employees.”
The county commissioners first voted on January 11 to increase funding to Durham Public Schools to cover the salary increases, and the Durham Public Schools Board of Education followed with a vote on January 14 to implement the new salary schedule, affecting approximately 1,200 employees. On January 25, the commissioners made the vote retroactive to the start of the school and fiscal year on July 1, 2020.
As previously reported in the INDY, the pay increase was first sponsored by Commissioner Heidi Carter in November when she proposed increasing the school workers’ minimum wage to $15 starting this month.
Carter called it “the right thing to do.”
“We know that the classified staff works incredibly hard,” she said at the time. “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.”
According to the DPS website, pay will be increased for all employees who formerly earned less than $16.50 an hour, with employees earning less than $15 an hour receiving the largest pay increase. Employees received their new monthly salary increases with their January paychecks. They will receive back pay—from July through December—in February.
“I’m grateful for the collaborative work with our Durham County Board of Commissioners to make this priority a reality for our staff,” said school board Chair Bettina Umstead. “A minimum wage of $15 an hour will honor the hard work of our current staff and have a positive impact on our ability to recruit and retain great DPS employees.”
The vote comes amid increased costs of living throughout the Triangle, and as a deadly pandemic puts added pressures and dangers on frontline workers, including school employees. It’s also an outgrowth of a robust local movement fighting for a $15 minimum wage in both the public and private sector.
On Instagram, progressive group Durham For All celebrated the news and thanked the county commissioners.
“Victories like these demonstrate the power in electing local leaders who will unite against the defunding of public education and continuation of poverty wages by right-wing lawmakers at the state and federal levels,” the group wrote. “Victories like these demonstrate the power of our movements.”
They tagged local organizations including Fight for $15, the Durham People’s Alliance, and the Durham Association of Educators who have been at the forefront of the issue locally. Together, the coalition sent more than 750 emails to commissioners in support of the raise, Durham For All wrote.
In its push for the pay increase, the Durham Association of Educators shared several stories of DPS classified employees on why the higher minimum wage is necessary.
“As a person who has grown up in the Triangle, gentrification and the rising cost of living have made it harder to afford even my families basic necessities,” a statement from worker Maria Peralta reads. “Having this raise would help provide for my family, especially during these financially unstable times due to COVID-19.”
Several other employees expressed similar sentiment.
“I feel the raise to $15 would display that DPS cares for its employees,” Dominic Lynn said. “The retro pay would assist in supporting my family’s daycare expenses.”
Classified worker Andrea Resto also said the increase would help employees keep up with a rising cost of living and send a strong message about the county’s priorities.
“Everyday I put students and families first,” Resto said. “It would be amazing to know that Durham values my dedication, contributions, and hard work.”
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