Eugene Farrar worked eight hours, and then his friend’s water heater burst. He sounds tired. The peril of being handy, it seems, is that your friends expect you to be handy even when you’re off the clock.

Since 2010, Farrar has been a custodian for Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools. He’s a broad-shouldered 72-year-old with a graying goatee and a thousand-yard scowl. Last Wednesday, he was one of several dozen protesters outside the school system’s offices in Chapel Hill. They were rallying against the system’s alleged negligence in its treatment of minority employees and students.

“We are simply too top-heavy,” Farrar says. Superintendent Tom Forcella makes more than $200,000 a year, he points out, but those on the system’s bottom rungs struggle to pay their bills. Farrar makes $11.65 an hour, which works out to a little over $24,000 a year. The median household income in Orange County is $55,569.

For five years, Farrar has heard the promises from local leaders that they would soon pay a living wage. For five years, he’s watched those promises come and go.

Today, he’s closer to a raise than he’s ever been. School officials say that by year’s end, all of their employees should make at least $12.75 an hour, the amount most labor experts figure it takes to get by in Orange County. The raise would affect 131 school-system employees.

“They say it’s coming,” Farrar says. “But we need it now.”

Farrar’s skepticism is understandable. School leaders have for years blamed state budget cuts while denying raises to frustrated custodians. And last year, the board agreed to begin bidding most of the system’s evening custodial services to contractors, who are almost certain to pay their employees even less.

Middling wages are a common complaint throughout the United States, but especially in expensive locales like Orange County. Federal guidelines say that households should not spend more than 30 percent of their annual income on housing. But in Chapel Hill, 56 percent of renters do so, and the town’s median home value is a lofty $368,400, the highest in the Triangle.

This week, a band of Orange County activists will launch a grassroots, peer-pressure-driven effort to stand up for workers like Farrar. The Orange County Living Wage Project wants to offer certifications for business owners who promise to meet the $12.75-an-hour threshold for all of their workers. Employers providing health benefits would have to pay at least $11.25 an hour to qualify.

This effort, inspired by similar campaigns in Durham and Asheville, is rooted in the acknowledgment that the federal minimum wage, $7.25 an hour, is inadequate. And with state law barring local governments from imposing any wage ordinances on private employerseven government contractorsthese kinds of consumer-driven campaigns may be the best way to push employers to hike wages.

“It’s an issue that’s time has come,” says Mark Marcoplos, a builder whoalong with Susan Romaine, the co-founder of PORCH, an Orange County nonprofit that fights hungeris an organizer for the Living Wage Project.

The campaign will calculate the living wagedetermined using a formula that factors in the federal poverty level, the price of goods and services and housing costson an annual basis. When the threshold rises, business owners will have to re-apply for certification. Certifications will be prominently displayed in participating businesses. Should a business fail to live up to its promises, employees can report it to the campaign for public shaming.

When the campaign officially launches on Friday at Carrboro’s Steel String Brewery, Marcoplos says 33 local organizationsincluding the Orange Water and Sewer Authority, Open Eye Café in Carrboro, Curryblossom Café in Chapel Hill, Marcoplos’ small construction company and a number of churches and car repair shopswill be certified.

The list’s most recent addition, Carol Woods Retirement Community in Chapel Hill, is a big catch.

The retirement community told campaign leaders that 58 employees will receive pay increases to meet the living-wage threshold. Once the community’s pay structure changes, another 50 will see their pay raised as well. Altogether, this amounts to an increase of more than $220,000 a year for Carol Woods employees.


Bill Lester, the UNC-Chapel Hill professor who led a student project called Low Wage N.C. last year, says these kinds of grassroots, consumer-driven campaigns are the only option for activists in North Carolina.

“It’ll work in places like Orange County and Durham, where there is a progressive consumer base,” says Lester.

Lester’s project determined that North Carolina’s most underpaid workers were heavily concentrated in the service sector. Restaurants were among the biggest culprits. The study found that the average hourly wage for the nearly 300,000 state restaurant workers, about 8 percent of the state’s working population, was $6.89 per hour, including tips. (Because they’re tipped, their below-minimum-wage pay is legal.)

“How can we tolerate this wage inequality that’s going on?” Lester asks. “It’s unjust to have people struggling in the midst of so much wealth creation.”

The key to a living-wage campaign’s success lies not just in convincing people that higher wages are better for the workers receiving them, but also that higher wages are better for the entire economy. Lower-income workers are more likely to pump extra cash right back into local shops and restaurants, advocates say.

There’s also a “ripple” factor, Lester says. When the lowest-paid employees get a boost, employers will be forced to make adjustments for all of their workers.

Campaign leaders say they’ve found receptive ears among local government officials. Orange County, for instance, will be a certified living-wage employer.

Aldermen in Carrboro, meanwhile, are currently budget-wrangling to meet the wage requirement with all of their employees, even seasonal part-timers like referees in local recreation leagues. Alderman Damon Seils says he wants to see the town certified in the next year. “As we have these broader conversations about affordable housing, addressing the way we pay our own employees is a great way to move that conversation forward,” Seils says.

Chapel Hill leaders imposed a living-wage policy in 2009. This year, the town’s lowest-paid full-time employee will make $13.35 an hour.

And in Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools, the second-largest employer in the county, change is afoot, too. Todd LoFrese, assistant superintendent of auxiliary support services, says he hopes to have all of the system’s employees, including custodians like Farrar, making $12.75 by the end of the year.

Asked if the system could simply refuse to hire contractors who pay less than a living wagestate law bars imposing wage requirements on contractors, but local governments can still choose whom they contract withLoFrese says he plans to present just that option to the school board this month. But there will be a cost.

“The budgets aren’t really getting any better,” he says. “In the list of things that we have as areas of focus, it’s going to be prioritized with many other things.”

For living-wage advocates, this gets at the underlying problem: Groups like the Orange County Living Wage Project can exert pressure all they want, but ultimately, these are policy matters that are decided by policymakers.

“Many of the business owners around here are excited about it,” says Lester. “Now that’s only going to capture a small part of the market, though. I still think you need a strong mandate statewide.”

This article appeared in print with the headline “Pay it forward”