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Lawmakers, worker advocates push for doubling NC minimum wage to $15 an hour

Posted March 19, 2019 10:40 a.m. EDT
Updated March 19, 2019 6:04 p.m. EDT

— Democratic lawmakers and worker advocates got behind an effort Tuesday to raise North Carolina's minimum wage from $7.25 to $15 an hour by 2024.

Lawmakers stressed their plan would gradually increase the minimum wage to make the transition easier for employers. After 2024, the minimum wage would be indexed to keep pace with inflation.

Earl Bradley, a shift manager at a Wendy's restaurant, said he makes $9.25 an hour and recently lost two weeks of pay because he was sick and doesn't get vacation or sick leave.

"On $9.25 an hour, I'm lucky if I have $50 left over to pay my rent, bills, food and transportation," Bradley said, noting he had to get extensions on some bills and had to reach out to his mother for help with others.

Daily life is even more difficult for Yashonda Gaston, a part-time, minimum-wage worker at Waffle House. She's been homeless for seven months because she can't afford rent, and her only meals come at work, she said.

"Nobody who works should be homeless, go without meals or adequate transportation," Gaston said. "Too many hard-working people in America are living paycheck to paycheck."

State lawmakers set a $15-an-hour minimum wage for all state workers in the 2018-19 state budget. But the Republican majority has historically been leery of forcing such increases on the private sector, arguing that it would cost jobs and hinder economic growth.

It has been almost a decade since North Carolina's minimum wage was raised to $7.25 an hour.

Critics of the proposal say employers will pay more when they can't find people to work for minimum wage, but Ana Pardo with the North Carolina Justice Center said that theory hasn't worked out well for workers, noting the buying power of the average American household has been declining since the 1970s.

"We have already tried the market approach. It has let us down for the last 50 years," Pardo said. "We have seen a steady decrease in the quality of the American job and in the wage of the American job."

Eric Henry, who runs a small design business in Burlington, said Tuesday that he's seen no economic slowdown in other areas that have raised minimum wages in recent years. Phasing in wage increases in North Carolina over five years would give businesses time to adjust, he said.

"We have to take care of our people in this state," Henry said. "A community cannot be successful unless everybody in that community has an opportunity to participate.

Some North Carolina employers have already indicated their plans to raise the minimum wage. In December, UNC Health Care announced its plans to boost employees' minimum hourly wage to $15 by July 2019.

The new minimum wage would affect about 9,000 housekeepers, stock clerks, nursing assistants, cashiers and other UNC employees across the Triangle. The adjustment would cost UNC Health Care about $15 million a year.

Rep. Susan Fisher, D-Buncombe, a primary sponsor of the minimum wage legislation, said nowhere in the U.S. can a full-time, minimum-wage job cover the rent on a two bedroom apartment.

"Our bill is about making sure that everyone who works full time can earn a living wage, that everyone can afford the basics and that everyone has a fair opportunity to work hard and succeed, including people with disabilities, people who care for our homes and our families, people who serve our food and the people who grow it," Fisher said.

The proposal would also eliminate exemptions to minimum-wage rules for farm workers and household help and phase them out for restaurant workers who get tips.

Gov. Roy Cooper last month called for an increase in North Carolina's minimum wage and said it need not be the $15-an-hour phase-in many Democrats have called for.

"We need to work with the General Assembly to see how high we can get it," Cooper told WRAL News. "$15 is an admirable goal."