Shaina Holman anticipated a broken arm or a burned down office, but she never anticipated a pandemic.

The Chapel Hill dentist has had her own practice for three years. She was committed to paying her hygienists, office workers, and assistants a living wage from the jump. If an emergency were to happen, she wanted to be able to continue paying them for up to three weeks, while they looked for other jobs. So she saved.

In March 2020, an emergency happened. 

Despite North Carolina never shutting down dentists’ offices, Holman decided that closing would be the safest option as the country learned more about COVID-19. She told her employees she’d continue paying them for three weeks while they signed up for unemployment. She also informed her clients.

“I just literally wanted them to know my people were good, and I was taking care of my people, because that’s just who I am,” Holman says.

Holman is one of 222 businesses currently certified by Orange County Living Wage, a nonprofit that defines the wages it takes to afford to live here. On January 5, the organization announced its 2021 living wage, bumping the hourly threshold from $14.90 to $15.40. The calculation, based on the standard that only 30 percent of income should be used for housing, takes into account the cost it’d take to rent a one-bedroom apartment in the area.

“Since July 2009, we have had a minimum wage of $7.25 an hour,” Susan Romaine, chair of Orange County Living Wage, says. “For folks who were working or have families, that really is a poverty wage. We feel it’s so important that as we move forward with our living wage effort, we want to continue to advocate for a minimum wage that’s a living wage.”

North Carolina is one of 21 states that have plateaued at the federal minimum wage requirement for more than a decade. The amount may be the highest our minimum wage has ever been in the United States, but its purchasing power has decreased since the 1980s by failing to keep up with inflation. While North Carolina’s cost of living is slightly lower than the national average, the Family Success Alliance of Orange County reports that the area has the highest cost of living in the state—as well as the most income inequality.

The pandemic changed the living wage project’s conversation this year, leaving the group to consider whether or not it should announce a new base wage for 2021 or allow a grace period. Ultimately, the group decided to continue its work, increasing the certification requirement from $14.90 an hour to $15.40 an hour, about a 3 percent increase.

“Our mission is devoted to living wages; we want to continue to create that awareness in the community—that rent continues to go up, other expenses continue to go up, inflation goes up,” Romaine says. “In a way, it’s more important than ever that we come out with a new living wage.”

For Holman and others, this means more than a certificate. It’s a personal mission—which is why she created her emergency fund. When she informed her clients that she’d continue to support them, the news spread throughout town.

“People posted in the local mothers’ club about it, and really there was a lot of talk around town, because so many people were just kind of kicked to the curb,” Holman says. “They were like, ‘Wow, she’s really paying for them anyway, that’s pretty awesome.’”

When Holman Family Dental Care reopened after eight weeks, she says they were “slammed” with new patients who had taken notice. Because of this, Holman is sure she’ll continue paying her employees a living wage—even at the higher rate—and has been able to hire more people.

When a business is certified by Orange County Living Wage, they have to re-register every two years. Businesses that last renewed in 2019, when the living wage was set at $14.25 an hour, were expected to meet 2021’s new benchmark. Despite the new minimum, the businesses have three months after North Carolina’s state of emergency expires before they have to meet the new goal. Currently, the state of emergency is set to end on March 30, 2021. By June 30, the businesses would need to be up to date.

Romaine says there has not been pushback based on the new living wage expectations—or during the pandemic. However, some of their partners have been erased from the list—not because of opting out, but because they shuttered for good. Among them are party store Balloons & Tunes and outdoor outfitters Townsend Bertram & Company, two Carrboro businesses that closed after the pandemic started.

Scott Conary, owner of Open Eye Café and Carrboro Coffee Roasters, says their goal was always to pay employees a living wage; the countywide project was simply a means to verify this with the community. Their goal hasn’t changed with the pandemic, but it means more spreadsheets than ever.

“It’s entirely stressful, and we worry about it every day, and I lose sleep, and I’ve gotten a couple of ulcers,” Conary says. “It’s horrible, and it’s not an easy thing to do, period—especially for a small business that’s running on slim margins. But now, during a pandemic when everyone’s revenue is slashed at least 50 percent, and sometimes more, it’s a real mission. You gotta dig in and figure it out, and we’re pulling out all the stops to make it happen.”

Orange County Living Wage factors in cost of living for four counties—instead of just Orange, they look at Alamance, Chatham, and Durham. They have to, because so many people can’t afford to live in Chapel Hill or the immediate surrounding area.

“Even at $15.40, there is no cushion in this budget,” Romaine says. “It’s a very tight budget, and it is just for that one-bedroom apartment.”

Conary and Holman both say that these minimums are just that: the minimum.

“You want your employees to feel supported and encouraged and empowered, and the way to do that is not by saying ‘Get off the clock,’ or, ‘I don’t really care if they have health insurance or not,’ or ‘I don’t really care if they have a retirement plan or not,’” Holman says. “I really want my employees to know that I care about them as people. I care about their future and their health, and I’m wanting to make that personal sacrifice for my own income and make sure that they are good. That’s just important.”

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