Raleigh’s wages of poverty

Posted | by Ian Pajer-Rogers |

If the city of Raleigh one day got a bug up its butt and decided it wanted to hike its minimum wage—like 29 states and many other large cities across the country have done—well, tough luck. The General Assembly doesn't allow that. Nor, as of 2013, does it permit cities to require their contractors to pay living wages.

But Raleigh does have options. It could, for instance, provide a living wage for all of its employees, like eight other North Carolina cities and counties have already done, starting with Durham in the late '90s. (It's not immediately clear how many city workers would be affected by such an ordinance; theINDY placed a records request for that information late last week, but that request had not been fulfilled by press time.) Or, also like Durham, Raleigh could nudge companies to provide a living wage through a certification process. It could also incentivize developers to pay their workers better.

But none of those things has happened. In fact, none of them has ever even come up for debate.

"I can say I have not heard it," says Councilor Bonner Gaylord, who has been on Council since 2009. "I can't remember any specific conversation, city-related, where it's been brought up or discussed."

Perhaps that's about to change. On Monday evening, Gaylord, widely considered a future mayoral aspirant, told the INDY that he would ask the city attorney's office to determine what the Council's legal possibilities are. Mary-Ann Baldwin, another potential mayoral candidate in 2017, added that if the issue came before Council, "of course we'd consider it."

That's a conversation activists want to have, both in the capital and across the state. The Legislature has made clear its disinterest in a higher minimum wage (currently set at the federal level of $7.25 an hour), paid sick leave or a multitude of other things that might help the 1.7 million North Carolinians who live below the federal poverty line. It thus falls to local governments and local businesses to nudge the ball forward.

This week, as part of a national #wageweek campaign organized by Interfaith Worker Justice, the NC Justice Center and North Carolina labor groups, among others, are taking to social media to both highlight local companies that have voluntarily raised their wage floors and press politicians at all levels to tackle this issue head-on.

"I hope this week would build awareness among the general public that workers deserve a raise," says MaryBe McMillan, secretary-treasurer of the NC AFL-CIO. "It can't be the new normal that people have to work two or three jobs to make ends meet."

But increasingly, that is exactly what's happening, both in North Carolina and throughout the country. The economic recovery has been "pretty broadly concentrated in low-income jobs," says Ana Pardo, campaign and outreach coordinator of NC Justice's Workers' Rights Project. (Pardo says that before landing her current job, she spent 18 months out of work. "It was so hard to find jobs that were decent.")

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