These are strange times we live in. Recognizing the growing gap between rich and poor, our President has described economic inequality as the defining issue of our time. The presidential candidates from both parties are now talking openly about growing inequality, and yet, it’s now been six years since minimum wage workers got a raise.
In Durham, NC, we’ve launched an innovative effort to recognize employers that pay a “living wage” and raise up the importance of living wages in our community. Durham has long been among the leading cities when it comes to promoting living wages. Durham was the first city in North Carolina and one of the first in the nation to pass a living wage ordinance in the late 1990s. More recently, with new data from the NC Justice Center that shows that Durham has the highest median hourly wage in the state, but the 86th worst income inequality (our of our state’s 100 counties), concern has been growing about the growing gap between rich and poor in the Bull City.
When a local progressive group, the Durham People’s Alliance, began studying the issue and possible solutions, it became clear that finding a local policy solution to this growing problem would be challenging, Two years ago, the General Assembly weakened all living wage ordinances in the state by removing the ability of these ordinances to apply to all city and county contractors. What’s more, a web of state preemption laws related to our state’s constitution keeps us from passing local policies, such as local minimum wage ordinances, that would apply to all private employers.
That’s why members of the Economic Inequality “action team” of the People’s Alliance decided to work with private employers to voluntarily raise wages for workers in Durham.
Based on the Living Wage Certification Program in Asheville, NC, developed by Just Economics, concerned activists, business owners and community leaders came together over the last year to develop the Durham Living Wage Project, a voluntary program that “certifies” living wage employers, connects consumers to living wage firms, and raises the importance of living wages in our community.
One of the very first issues we wrestled with was setting the wage standard for certification in Durham. After examining a number of living wage methodologies, we decided for simplicity’s sake and also for community buy-in that it would make the most sense to piggy-back on the existing living wage standard used by Durham City and County—$12.33 an hour.
After nine months of intensive meetings and committee work, the Durham Living Wage Project launched in March 2015, and we couldn’t be happier with the response. Almost 60 employers in Durham are now living wage certified and proudly display a unique logo in their place of business. The firms that have been certified represent a range of nonprofit and private employers across a wide variety of sectors, including construction firms, restaurants and other retail establishments, day care centers, architects and law firms, web designers, churches and an HVAC contractor. Our goal is the certify more than 100 firms by the end of 2015 and to make living wages a matter of conscience in our community.
Even in strange times, Durham is moving the ball forward on improving wages for its residents.
The author of this piece is Carl Rist.