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The growing grassroots movement to pay American workers a living wage got a nice boost last night. The Greensboro News & Record explains:

“The minimum wage for city employees is going up.

The City Council voted 7-2 Tuesday to increase minimum wages to $10 an hour for regular and seasonal employees, except for those at the Greensboro Coliseum, and $12 an hour for employees who also receive benefits.

Councilmen Tony Wilkins and Justin Outling voted against the plan, which also sets a goal of raising the minimum wage for city employees to $15 by 2020.”

You can watch TV coverage of the vote in this Fox 8 story.

Meanwhile, advocates who have been pushing for the  action for years praised the Council’s decision. This is from a statement by the good people at Working America:

“Carolyn Smith, North Carolina state director for Working America, praised the city workers for banding together and pushing the City Council to take up the issue.

‘This is a step in the right direction for Greensboro and working families,’ Smith said of the planned increase. ‘What we’ve heard from city workers is that they love Greensboro; they’re loyal to their jobs, but they struggle to take care of their families. This vote moves us closer to creating a family wage that will strengthen our community and gives businesses an incentive to follow suit.’

‘It’s great to see elected leaders standing with the women and families of Greensboro,’ Smith added.”

Let’s hope last night’s action helps spur many similar actions in the weeks  and months ahead.

Commentary
vince whitehurst - foundation

Vincent Whitehurst (photo by Ana Pardo).

As a follow up to National #WageWeek, the Progressive Pulse is highlighting the work of small business owners who have increased the wage floor for their employees. This blog post is the third in that series, and represents an interview with business owner Vincent Whitehurst.

Whitehurst and his partner Will Alphin co-own Foundation, a craft cocktail bar in downtown Raleigh. Foundation opened more than six years ago, and offers starting wages of $3.50-$5.50/hour for tipped employees. The current minimum wage for tipped employees is $2.13/hour.

When did you make the decision to set your wage floor above minimum?

We made the decision prior to even opening. We’ve been paying above minimum wage since the day we opened, and we’ve never reconsidered it. We wanted to attract good people and have an edge up, essentially. We never thought we’d try to just pay the minimum. We made the decision based on trying to get and retain good people, and show people that we intended to do better than the competition. It was also because we were both coming from different industries [architecture] where you don’t typically pay the minimum wage. We thought “you know, we don’t want to pay the minimum wage…that’s just too low”.

What values were behind the decision?

People here make most of their money on tips, and the people here that are working full-time are making well above the minimum wage when you factor in tips. We have low turnover; we have one guy who’s been here since we opened the bar, and that speaks to our commitment to keeping our employees around. From a values standpoint, we just appreciate good people. It’s not just about the money, either—it’s also the community. The people here, they call this a family. These guys feel like this is their group. It’s who they hang out with, who they go to dinner with when they’re not working. It’s the way we manage the business. We give people a lot of freedoms here. I think employees also consider that.

How does a higher wage floor impact your business?

If you have good people working for you, and decide up front that you’re going to pay them better, then it comes back around. You end up […] with people who understand service, who make people feel good, who know how to talk to people. You’re keeping them there, so you’re training them long-term. I think a lot of places think “oh, it’s just a server, they can just serve anywhere”. Here, everybody’s committed to learning these products, and sometimes it takes a few years. It’s a long-term vision; you train somebody and over time it’s going to help the business.

This interview has been edited for length.

Commentary
fulton forde - boulted bread

Fulton Forde (photo by Ana Pardo).

As a follow up to National #WageWeek, the Progressive Pulse is highlighting the work of local business leaders who are raising the wage floor for their employees. This blog post is the second in that series, and represents an interview with bakery owner Fulton Forde.

Forde and his partners Sam Kirkpatrick and Josh Bellamy own Boulted Bread, a small, 9-employee bakery in South Raleigh which opened a formal store front a year ago this week. The wage floor for Boulted Bread employees has been set at $10.50/hr since the business began.

Q: How did you make the decision to set your wage floor above the minimum?

A: We made the decision with our first hire, Meg. We talked a lot about a living wage, and it’s something I always had on my mind. Morality is a big part of the business – be it from sourcing, or process, every part – so we wanted the way we treat our employees to be in line with the products that we’re trying to sell. Coming up with a wage floor significantly over minimum was [important to] fitting the moral structure of the business.

Q: What benefits do you see as a business owner from having a higher base wage?

A: We want everyone to feel like they’re a part of the business, not just an employee. When the business benefits, we want [our employees] to benefit. So everyone who works here sees that we’re a little busier every week, and everyone’s wage is going up. We also want everyone to see that this is more than a job you have for a few months or a year. We’re here every day and we’re doing the same things. It’s simple work, but for us it’s tied to a whole lifestyle that we want and the morals of the business. Even in our first year we’ve been sure to take a couple of weeks off, and we’re moving forward with benefits in general. We want people to feel involved, receive the benefit of the [success of] the business and feel like this can be a long-term opportunity for them. We don’t have anyone who looks like they’re going to be, you know, escaping. When you start people off with that reciprocal respect, they’re willing to do more, and it’s easier to pay them more from there, because they have more responsibilities all the time. It leads to everyone representing the business well when they’re here, and when they’re not here, and ultimately greater success for everyone.

Q: How do you see your higher wage floor impacting your business in the long-run?

A: We started off having three owners, and we’re all really heavily involved. It’s all about dispersing the responsibility. That’s definitely one of our end-goals, having responsible employees who are capable of taking on some of the burden [of running the business]. There are so many people that I see really struggling, that really have a super-difficult life. Our employees are not; we’ve really taken steps to make [working here] livable. In the future, we plan to continue to increase pay, and we’re also working on some benefits like paid time off, simple IRA matching, possibly health insurance.

I think every business owner needs more free time even at their own business to create new things or research their product or service and see how they can make it better. So even if you’re addicted to work and want to be at work all the time, free time at work is really powerful, and can easily turn into more profitability if that’s what you’re after. We still work a lot, but now we have more time to really investigate things like better sourcing, better products. It wouldn’t be possible if we didn’t have employees who we trusted, who worked hard and were rewarded.

This interview has been edited for length.

Commentary
greg hatem - empire

Greg Hatem (photo by Ana Pardo).

As a follow up to National #WageWeek, the Progressive Pulse is highlighting the work of local business leaders who are raising the wage floor for their employees. This blog post is the first in the series, and represents an interview with Greg Hatem, owner of Empire Properties and Empire Eats in downtown Raleigh. Hatem worked with his staff over the past year to raise the wage floor to $10.15 for all 550 employees across his companies.

Q: When did Empire decide to prioritize raising the wage floor?

A: “Creating a long-term relationship with our employees has always been important. About 8 months ago we committed to getting it done within a year. It wasn’t easy, and it wasn’t just because of financial issues. We had legacy employees, where when we started looking we realized someone had a wage because of when they were hired, and then you’re bringing somebody else on at a different wage. So we had to slowly equilibrate that and make sure that we bring new people on at a good salary. We did it position-by-position and restaurant-by-restaurant, and we finished it up last month.”

Q: What were the underpinning values behind the company’s decision?

A: “It’s not just about work or a job, it’s about people and culture. What we value most are people that believe in the mission and the culture, and we want to make sure there’s a relationship. It’s not just an employer-employee relationship; we have people trying to help us create our vision, and in return we have a responsibility to help them create their vision and take care of their families. So it’s very symbiotic.”

“It was something we believed was possible if we had time enough to plan for it. That’s why we gave ourselves a 12-month window to do it strategically. Our belief is we end up working with folks that are more productive, who are happier, their life situation is better. What you’re really doing is investing in your people, and that has a return in itself. It’s just smart business to take care of the people around you, because that is the core of your business. If you take care of your people, they’ll take care of your guests. It’s not an expense, it’s an investment.”

Q: What was the reaction from your employees when they learned of the changes?

A: “We had a huge response from [employees] when we did it, because they knew we cared. I actually had one of the guys in the kitchen give me a hug because it meant that much to him. We have so many people that have been with us for 3, 5, 10 years. We’re there for each other.”

Q: What advice would you give to other business owners considering a similar move?

“Invest in your people. Invest in them in the day-to-day […] and help them become better at their job. When you do that, you create a better environment for your guests, and that’s the virtuous cycle.”

This interview has been edited for brevity.

Commentary

This is the latest in a series of “Wage Week” posts that we are featuring on The Progressive Pulse to highlight efforts to raise the abysmally low and inadequate federal minimum wage. Follow the discussion on Twitter at #WageWeek

By Vicki Meath, Executive Director of Just Economics

As we approach the sixth anniversary of the last time the federal minimum wage was raised the is Friday, we recognize the need to continue to raise the wage floor. A higher wage floor means more low and middle income workers are participating in sustainable economic activity, keeping money circulating in the local economy. It also means that more full time workers can put a roof over their head and food on their table without outside support. When the wage floor rises to a level where more workers can meet their basic needs, we experience a variety of economic benefits, but also we demonstrate that as a community, we value workers and an economy that works for all.

We are taking time this week to celebrate Wage Week and the hard work of individuals, business leaders, unions, organizations, and elected leaders who contribute to a more just and sustainable economy. While the public narrative often identifies some of these entities as adversaries, we honor the variety of strategies used to stand together on the side of economic justice.

Across the nation we have seen so many recent victories in the effort to raise the wage floor. In Seattle, community advocates worked with elected leaders to pass a bold city wide minimum wage policy. Thanks to the hard work of SEIU, homecare workers in Massachusetts won the fight for a $15/hr wage floor. From brave workers involved in the Fight for 15 to a wealthy venture capitalist, the New York Labor Department’s Wage Board heard testimony last month in support of a higher wage floor for fast food workers and the Board unanimously backed a wage raise proposal.

Here in North Carolina, our state law presents challenges to raising the wage floor at a local level but we continue to find creative strategies to raise wages and build a more sustainable economy. Just Economics, a small nonprofit in Western North Carolina, has the largest Living Wage Certification program in the country and helped develop a replicable model. The Durham Living Wage Project launched a similar program this past spring, identifying businesses voluntarily paying a living wage. The Moral Monday movement initiated by HKonJ and the NC NAACP mobilizes individuals across the state to push for an agenda that includes living wages as major piece of a system that provides equal opportunity for all North Carolinians. Despite the challenges, individuals and organizations across the state are making a difference.

Sometimes the work of justice can seem overwhelming. This week, let us look around, remember the value in this work, recognize our allies, and push forward. We still have a lot of work to do, but we are still winning.