Commentary

#WageWeek: Local communities lead the way in NC

Local governments are leading the way on wages, despite determined opposition from state legislators and state constitutional limits that hamstring such efforts.

As in a number of other southern states, the North Carolina Constitution sharply limits the authority of local governments to raise wages for private sector workers in their communities. These limitations were extended to include the private businesses performing local government contracts by legislation passed in 2013 and then confirmed by this year’s notorious HB2. As a result, city and county governments are prohibited from requiring any private business (including contractors) to engage in specific employment practices, including providing paid sick days or paying living wages.

Yet municipal and county governments still have important opportunities to take positive action to promote quality jobs—especially by raising the wages of their own public employees. And many of them are doing precisely that.

Cities and counties set the pay plan or salary schedule for public-sector employees annually through a process that often consults the market-rate for similar functions in the private sector, competition for labor, and changes in cost of living. In line with the national movement to raise wages for local government employees, however, a growing number of city and county governments in North Carolina are incorporating the living wage standard as one of these factors and accordingly paying their employees enough to make ends meet. This list includes:

  • In Greensboro, efforts by worker advocates led to an even bigger increase to $15 an hour (to be phased in fully in by 2020). Advocates canvassed hundreds of city employees to find out how much they were paid, when they last received a raise, and what they needed to make ends meet. They shared these stories with city councilmembers and the Mayor, and worked with these officials to determine a wage level that provided workers with enough to afford the basics (what they called a “family wage”) at a fiscally responsible cost.
  • Long a leader in the living wage movement, the City of Durham voted to raise the wage floor for its employees to $15 an hour over the next five years, a move that likely contributed to the decision by Duke University (Durham County’s largest employer) to raise its lowest paid staff to $12 an hour.
  • In Greenville, several city councilmembers had long sought to increase the wages for the city’s lowest paid employees. Last summer, they succeeded in raising the wage to $13.29, at a cost of roughly $2 million—or less than half of one percent of the total budget.
  • Wake County enacted a similar wage increase to $13.50 for its employees last fall, thanks to the leadership of Commissioners Matt Calabria and Sig Hutchison.

These local governments join local governments in Asheville, Buncombe, Chapel Hill, Carrboro, and Orange County as leaders in the effort to improve local economies by raising the minimum wage for public employees.

These efforts point towards a growing momentum to set the pay of public sector workers, who are delivering core services in their community, so they can afford life’s basic necessities. The vast majority of local governments have already recognized that federal and state wage standards are ineffective at retaining and recognizing the talent they need to operate effectively and efficiently—only three cities and three counties (Catawba, Forsyth, Mecklenburg) have wage floors below $10 an hour. Interestingly, Charlotte and Hickory—not often recognized for their higher wage standards—have a wage floor set higher than $12.

The bottom line: The burgeoning local living wage movement is gaining momentum in North Carolina, thanks to the leadership of these city and county governments and it seems all but certain that it will continue to spread throughout the state’s economy in the near future.

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