Inching towards a $15 per hour minimum wage

As Democratic candidates for national office held a spirited primary debate over raising the minimum wage to $15 per hour during the recent primary, elected officials in Democratic-controlled city councils in the Triad wrestled with the same question at the local level, taking modest action while pledging to do more in the future.

Greensboro City Council went first, approving a resolution in August 2015 to raise the minimum wage to $12 per hour (equivalent to $24,960 per year) for all benefited employees, excluding people who work at Greensboro Coliseum Complex, with the goal of raising the the wage to $15 (equivalent to $31,200) by 2020. By Sept. 1, the city plans to step up the minimum wage to $12.50, Communications Director Jake Keys said.

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Illustration by Jorge Maturino

And with the current fiscal year budget approved on June 20, Winston-Salem City Council increased its minimum wage from $10.10 to $11 per hour while directing staff “to develop a strategy to implement a $15 minimum wage over five years,” as Assistant City Manager Ben Rowe put it. City council approved a 2-cent tax increase while still boasting the lowest-cost among the state’s five largest cities to finance the pay raises.

The emphasis on fair compensation for the lowest paid city employees by local officials constitutes a remarkable evolution for local governing councils once preoccupied with cost containment and low taxes. The push for $15 per hour began with fast-food workers in New York City earlier in the decade, caught fire as part of the progressive coalition that came together through the Moral Monday movement in Raleigh and then became a defining feature of the Democratic primary fight between presidential candidates Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton.

Sanders rallied voters with simple call for a $15 minimum wage, forcing Clinton to more or less co-opt his position. In April, as she faced the New York primary, she adopted a position of supporting a phased-in $15 minimum wage, with some variations for different labor markets. Josh Brannon, the Democratic nominee for the 5th Congressional District, favors a $15 minimum wage phased in over five years, with Bruce Davis, his counterpart in the new 13th District, taking a similar position. Last month, the Democratic Party adopted a platform of raising the federal minimum wage to $15 and indexing it to inflation.

The fact that nearly one in five Greensboro residents lives in poverty makes it incumbent that the city pay its employees a living wage, said Councilman Jamal Fox, an African-American Democrat who represents District 2 in northeast Greensboro.

“We’ve got folks that work for us that work two or three jobs,” he said. “We want to be a family-friendly organization. We want people to be able to put food on the table, to provide clothes and put a roof over their heads. This is a holistic perspective so that parents are able to spend more time in the home with their children. Then you get to the education piece [that addresses generational poverty].”

Councilman Derwin Montgomery, an African-American Democrat who represents the East Ward on Winston-Salem City Council, riffed on a similar theme in remarks before the vote to approve the 2016-17 budget in June.

“I think if you’re gonna talk about it, then you’ve got to be about it, and be an example to others in the community to do that,” he said. “I think we have a long way to go to continue to move in that direction, but the strategy that is in this budget to look at examining how we can move to $15 an hour I think is something we need to continue to look at.”

Mayor Allen Joines, a white Democrat who convened a so-called “thought force” earlier this year to come up with ideas to address poverty, echoed Montgomery’s charge.

“I’m very excited about moving our minimum wage to $11 an hour, and we’re setting a good example for the other businesses and organizations in our city as we continue to work on our poverty initiative,” he said.

While both cities are focused on raising wages for their lowest-paid workers — custodians, sanitation workers and other laborers — Winston-Salem is playing catchup to maintain competitive pay for police officers and firefighters. With police and fire comprising two of the largest departments in the city that provide the critical function of public safety, city leaders have become frustrated as they invest in training new recruits only to see them depart for neighboring cities to take advantage of higher pay.

Last December, a study by the Winston-Salem Human Resources Department found that pay for Winston-Salem firefighters increases on average by 16 percent over their first five years on the job, while pay for their counterparts in High Point rises 28 percent through a program called “Career Ladder” that incentivizes them to get new certifications. Similarly, the “Step Pay Plan” in Greensboro results in an average pay increase of 21 percent over the same period.

The study found that police officers in Winston-Salem are similarly disadvantaged.

To address lagging pay, the new budget adopted by Winston-Salem City Council on June 20 includes a 2-percent pay adjustment for police officers and firefighters to take effect on Jan. 1, 2017, and a pay increase designed to improve retention among officers and corporals with five to 10 years of experience. The budget also includes merit raises and market adjustments for other employees ranging from 1.5 to 3 percent.

“We’re continuing our efforts to bring our police officers and firefighters up to competitive levels,” said Councilman Dan Besse, a white Democrat who represents the Southwest Ward. “It’s not just the right thing to do for those who protect our community, it’s also a smart policy for getting the best public-safety service for our citizens. We cannot afford to keep training good officers just to lose them to other cities who pay them a little closer to what they deserve.” 

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