As #WageWeek continues to celebrate local and state efforts to improve wages across the country, The Progressive Pulse is highlighting the work of advocates, businesses, and elected officials engaged in innovative efforts to raise wages in local communities across North Carolina. This blog post is the next in this series, and represents a guest post from Carl Rist, board member of Durham Peoples Alliance and convener of the Economic Inequality Action team.

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.

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As #WageWeek continues to celebrate local and state efforts to improve wages across the country, a growing campaign for quality wages for home healthcare workers and quality care for seniors launched in Raleigh on Monday at a Crucial Conversation event hosted by NC Policy Watch.

Workers, legislators, and advocates spoke movingly at the event about the crucial link between paying caregivers better wages and providing seniors with the stability in care they need to spend their lives in dignity.

At a time when our growing population of seniors is driving rapid growth in the number of workers providing their care, it is more important than ever to address the harsh reality that workers in caregiving occupations are among the lowest paid in our economy—earning on average $5 less an hour than workers in the overall economy.

Because these caregivers earn so little, they are forced to work second and third jobs just to make ends meet and afford the basics for their families. Balancing so many jobs with different hours often causes dramatic disruptions in their ability to provide continuous, stable care to the seniors who rely on them.

And as became clear over the course of the conversation, a big contributor to this problem involves the state’s Medicaid program, which reimburses seniors for long-term care and disability services. Medicaid largely sets the overall framework for private insurance reimbursements, and after years of budget cuts, North Carolina’s program now reimburses seniors $4 dollars an hour less than the national average.

A lower reimbursement rate for care means less money for the homecare employers arranging senior care, and even lower wages for the workers actually providing the care.

Something must be done to raise caregiver wages, and Monday’s conversation marked a good first step in raising awareness on this important issues.


Many North Carolina workers are locked in low-wage jobs that don’t pay enough to make ends meet, even though they’re working full-time. Over the long-term, state lawmakers need to implement a comprehensive strategy that creates pathways out of this low-wage economy. But right now, they can provide an immediate boost to working families by increasing the minimum wage from the current level of $7.25 an hour. Raising the wage floor would put more money in the pockets of workers, increase sales for local businesses, and strengthen the state’s overall economic performance, without increasing unemployment, according to a new fact sheet released by the Justice Center yesterday.

Most importantly, raising the minimum wage benefits adult workers and their families, providing a critical antidote to the ongoing boom in low-wage jobs. Almost 6 out of every 10 new jobs created since the end of the recession are in industries that pay poverty-level wages. More than 80 percent of new jobs created since 2009 don’t pay enough to cover life’s necessities, including housing, healthcare, groceries, and gas costs. Raising the minimum wage would make the difference between destitution and self-sufficiency for thousands of workers on the bottom rung of the state’s labor market.

One critical effect of raising the minimum wage for these low-income workers is the boost to the entire economy that comes from putting more money in the pockets of large numbers of those workers most likely to spend it. For example, boosting the wage floor to $10 an hour would affect approximately 1 million workers in North Carolina. And because of the boom in low-wage work, the vast majority of those North Carolinians benefitting from the wage increase are no longer the part-time, teen-aged workers who once filled the bulk of entry-level jobs in past generations. Now, more than 85 percent of those benefitting from a minimum wage increase are workers older than 20 years of age, and more than half work full-time. A half-million children in the state would experience increased security thanks to their parents’ higher wages—a critical support given that North Carolina has the eighth highest percentage of children living in poverty in the nation.

As low-income workers spend their bigger paychecks, local businesses will benefit, growing the economy without hurting overall employment. Economists have repeatedly found that those states that increased their minimum wages have seen better economic performance, lower unemployment, and higher job creation rates than those states that didn’t raise their wages, controlling for regional economic trends. The evidence clearly and repeatedly contradicts critics who claim that increasing the minimum wage forces employers to offset greater payroll costs by reducing the number of employees.

In fact, raising the minimum wage creates more customers, more sales, and bigger profits. For example, recent studies have indicated that raising the minimum wage to $10 an hour would increase paychecks for North Carolina’s workers by $2 billion a year. That’s $2 billion in increased consumer spending at local businesses, boosting business sales, business profits, and creating more than 5,000 new jobs.

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PW 47-2 quality jobs

Six years after the end of the Great Recession, jobs are finally becoming more plentiful in North Carolina, but the overwhelming majority of those jobs don’t pay enough to make ends meet, provide necessary benefits to help families get by, or create sustainable pathways into middle-class prosperity. In short, North Carolina is not creating enough quality jobs—employment opportunities that pay workers enough maintain basic spending on necessities like food and doctor visits, ensure retirement security, and provide paid time off when they or family members are sick. And without enough quality jobs, the middle class will shrink, consumer spending will drop, local business sales will suffer, and the overall economy will contract.

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Following sharp questioning of Commerce Secretary Skvarla in a Senate Finance Committee hearing Tuesday, it was readily apparent that the Senate would take a different tack on economic development than the House, which passed its own much-criticized package last month. In a surprise press conference yesterday afternoon announcing their own “jobs package” , however, Senate leaders made it abundantly clear that “different” didn’t mean “better” when it comes to growing an economy that benefits everyone in the state. While the bill does take a few positive steps forward on improving our state’s incentive programs, on balance, the bad outweighs the good and does not represent the most effective approach to economic development.

Most importantly, the proposal doubles down on tax cuts and company-specific tax incentives, instead of policies that benefit companies by adding economic value to communities. We’ve known for decades that North Carolina’s competitive edge in the global economy rests on providing companies with the skilled workforce and infrastructure they need boost to their productivity and ensure long-term profitability.

Unfortunately, the proposed changes to the Job Development Investment Grant (JDIG) program ignore these time-tested strategies for robust economic development in favor of budget-busting tax cuts and corporate incentives that have proved more expensive and less effective than advertised. In fact, 60 percent of JDIG projects have failed to live up to their promises of job creation or investment since the program began in 2002, and JDIG is out of money because the state spent more than half the available funds on a single project in Charlotte.

At a time when North Carolina needs to create at least 400,000 new jobs just to meet the needs of growing population, now is not the time to double down on ineffective economic development.

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