Opinion

Living wages work – Claire Horne

Erik Lars Meyer, of Mystery Brewing Company in Hillsborough, is one of 127 living wage employers in Orange County. “If you take care of your employees,” says Meyer, “they will take care of your business.”
Erik Lars Meyer, of Mystery Brewing Company in Hillsborough, is one of 127 living wage employers in Orange County. “If you take care of your employees,” says Meyer, “they will take care of your business.”

On Labor Day, the nation honored the contributions of the American worker. Every day in North Carolina, a growing roster of employers affirms the value of their employees by paying them a living wage.

More than 600 living-wage certified employers in Orange, Durham, and Buncombe counties voluntarily pay wages that are substantially higher than the federal minimum of $7.25.

Erik Lars Meyer, of Mystery Brewing Company in Hillsborough, is one of 127 living wage employers in Orange County. “If you take care of your employees,” says Meyer, “they will take care of your business."

Orange County Living Wage, a 501(c)3 nonprofit, certifies employers who pay a living wage of $13.15, or $11.65 with health insurance. Our roster includes restaurants, hair salons, automotive shops, nonprofits, municipal and county governments, churches and plumbers.

North Carolina’s hourly minimum wage is mired at the federal minimum of $7.25. Wages rise according to where you set the floor.

$7.25 has been called a “starvation wage.” Eight or even nine dollars an hour is a “just-surviving” wage. As service industries grow, the economy adds more low-paying jobs in areas like home health, food service and restaurants, entertainment and recreation. Without higher wages, we’re adding lots of jobs that barely sustain lots of people. Hard workers are falling further behind as the cost of everything rises – including rent.

Orange County Living Wage’s hourly wage formula is based on housing costs. We use a four-year average of U.S. Housing and Urban Development Fair Market Rent from Durham, Orange, Chatham and Alamance counties to calculate the income required for a one-bedroom apartment. For Orange County, that’s $13.15 an hour, with 30 percent of salary spent on housing.

The living wage is just that – enough to live on. With no luxuries, extras, or frills.

For example, The National Low Income Housing Coalition reports that in our state a full-time worker needs an hourly wage of $15.79 to afford a two-bedroom apartment. Anyone earning $13.15 an hour, renting a one-bedroom apartment, is not living large. Add food, utilities, transportation, and child care, and the money is quickly spent. Moving from minimum wage to a living wage, however, is a step up from poverty and towards the middle class.

The easiest way to keep employees is to let them know they’ve got some money coming.

Ari Sanders, general manager at Mystery Brewing Company.

And when you look at workplace dynamics, both employees and employers can benefit from higher wages.

Work ethics and customer service improve when people know they’re valued.

Maya Brown, a resident life specialist at Chapel Hill’s living-wage-certified Carol Woods Retirement Community, says that because employees are paid well, “the work ethic here is better and I think our nursing staff is very motivated to do a good job.”

Better-paid employees stay in their jobs longer, accumulate more skill, take less time off, and work more effectively.

A living wage helps attract more skilled employees – and keeps them on the job.

Business owners know firsthand the time and effort required to fully train new hires. Frequent turnover is a huge drain on resources.

“I want to pay people enough that they will stay,” says Ari Sanders, general manager at Mystery Brewing Company. “The easiest way to keep employees is to let them know they’ve got some money coming.”

SandersMysteryBrewing (1)
“I want to pay people enough that they will stay,” says Ari Sanders, general manager at Mystery Brewing Co. “The easiest way to keep employees is to let them know they’ve got some money coming.” Chris Ubik

It’s no surprise, says Shawn Stokes, chef and owner of Luna Rotisserie and Empanadas in Durham, “that when people aren’t stressed about how to make rent or pay the light bill, they’re more focused, morale improves, and productivity goes up.”

Living wages put money back into the community.

Wage raises tied to living wage certification put $575,000 more annually into the pockets of Orange County workers – some of which goes straight to the local economy.

Employers and consumers can shape their local economy from the ground up. One by one, businesses are choosing to raise their wage floors and put workers on a firmer footing toward prosperity.

We encourage local residents to put their values into action and support employers who pay workers enough to live on.

“Shop living wage” throughout September during our consumer campaign. Find hundreds of living-wage-certified businesses in Orange County and throughout Durham. Eat, shop, and spend with the employers and employees who make living wages work in North Carolina.

Claire Horne is a member of the Steering Committee for Orange County Living Wage.

About the nonprofit

Orange County Living Wage is a local nonprofit working to raise wages and create just and prosperous communities.

The Steering Committee members are Mike Andrews, Susan Attermeier, John Barrow, Kimberly Brewer, Victoria Freeman, Claire Horne, Chris Lathrop, Mark Marcoplos, and Ariane Sanders.

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