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.


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.


Winsotn-Salem teach-inThe demonstration against the North Carolina legislature’s voter suppression law, organized by the NAACP and Moral Monday movement last Monday in Winston-Salem, was a stirring reminder that, fifty years after the Voting Rights Act, civil rights cannot be taken for granted in this country. But the organizers of the day’s event also called attention to another disturbing trend, one that is closely connected to civil rights: the war on poor people, particularly those who find themselves in the most precarious jobs of our economy’s service sector.

A teach-in on economic justice, facilitated by the NAACP, was held on Monday afternoon at Goler Memorial AME Zion Church. Ben Wilkins of Raise Up for 15 launched the discussion by emphasizing that voter suppression laws are aimed not only at minorities, but at poor people.

To emphasize this point, Wilkins quoted Dr. Martin Luther King’s speech of March 25, 1965, in which Dr. King observed that “segregation of the races was really a political stratagem employed by the emerging Bourbon interests in the South to keep the southern masses divided and southern labor the cheapest in the land…[T]he southern aristocracy took the world and gave the poor white man Jim Crow. … And when his wrinkled stomach cried out for the food that his empty pockets could not provide, he ate Jim Crow, a psychological bird that told him that no matter how bad off he was, at least he was a white man, better than the black man.” Read More


Notwithstanding the latest oblivious comments of Crown Prince Jeb, the drumbeat demanding a significant increase in the national minimum wage continues to grow louder and louder — both at the grassroots level and in the world of data and research.

Confirmation of the latter can be found in two news studies highlighted last week by the wonks at the Economic Policy Institute.

In study #1, researchers at the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics found that pay for average American workers is and has been stagnant. As EPI President Lawrence Mishel explained in a post last week:

“Their analysis confirms that there has been very broad-based stagnant pay whether one examines just wages or a more comprehensive compensation measure that also incorporates changes in health, pension, and other benefits. The bottom 80 percent of workers had stagnant or declining hourly compensation while the bottom 88 percent of workers had stagnant or declining wages.”

Study #2 comes from EPI’s David Cooper. Here are the key findings:

  • A $12 minimum wage in 2020 would undo the erosion in value of the minimum wage that took place largely in the 1980s. It would also reverse the growth in wage inequality between low-and middle-wage workers over the past generation.
  • Raising the minimum wage to $12 by 2020 would directly or indirectly lift wages for 35.1 million workers—more than one in four U.S. workers. Read More


Here’s an question that most healthy, able-bodied people have probably never spent much time considering: How much should the people who help others to get dressed, shower and use the toilet get paid?

According to the present-day “genius of the market,” the answer is: “not much.” Home care workers in our society – many of them women and people of color, of course — are pretty much treated as a disposable commodity. Pay is low, benefits are minimal to non-existent, hours can be long and challenging and the work is frequently difficult.  The results of this situation are predictable: the quality of care provided is frequently uneven and turnover in the profession is high.

In the coming weeks and months, The Progressive Pulse will feature a series of posts by folks directly affected by this hard and often absurd reality. It is our hope that by shining a light on some of these real life stories, we can begin to inspire the public and policymakers to bring the issue out into the light. We welcome constructive comments, suggestions and contributions.

The first story comes from a Winston-Salem mother and grandmother named Mary Bartholomew.

Better wages crucial for home care workers – and for those in need of care
By Mary Bartholomew

I am a breast cancer survivor with a number of other ongoing health problems, including chronic lung disease. I have been assessed as fully disabled since 1986, and like many seniors I live on a fixed income. Having COPD leaves me with no energy and makes physical tasks difficult, so it’s very important to me to have home care assistance. I am granted 20 hours of home care help through a provider agency. My current caregiver has been wonderful, but she too is moving on and now it’s up to me to find someone new to help.

The trouble is that provider agencies only pay home care workers $9 an hour. It’s very challenging to find someone qualified who is willing to work for that wage and for such limited hours. Those who do take the jobs are struggling to support their own families and eventually have to move on to another line of work. When you add it all up, this means I have a hard time finding a consistent caregiver, and sometimes have no help at all when I most critically need it.

I want to stay in my home. It is far more comfortable and far less expensive for me to stay here than to move to a nursing home. My daughter has two very active teenage sons, and I want them to be able to visit me and spend time with me at home. However, in order to stay I need more consistent care. I’m fortunate to have a provider agency that cares about my needs, but they can only do as much as the law mandates. One of the best ways to improve the quality and consistency of home care is to improve caregiver wages. It’s time to fix this problem so that people needing home care – and those providing it – can live out their lives with dignity.