Winston-Salem trails Greensboro in Fight for 15

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Monticello Mitchell (left) and Tim Watson on lunch break. (photo by Jordan Green)

Labor advocates are heartened that Winston-Salem set a goal to pay employees a minimum wage of 15 dollars an hour by 2021, but some workers still look with envy to Greensboro.

The city of Winston-Salem took a step closer to establishing a wage floor of $15 per hour for city workers when city council approved a resolution to meet the goal by 2021.

“As a legal matter, we can’t bind future councils,” Councilman Dan Besse said. “I thought under the circumstances of setting the goal, it would be hard politically to walk back from that.”

In the meantime, the budget fiscal year 2018-2019 increases the minimum wage from $11.25 to $12.50, but the raise doesn’t go into effect until April 2019.

Monticello Mitchell, a maintenance worker in the vegetation management division, took a lunch break at the Wendy’s restaurant on Waughtown Street in southeast Winston-Salem last Thursday.

“For the next six days we’re going to be above 90 degrees,” he said. “Some people are going to struggle with that.” He added that employees would have seen it as a “good faith” gesture if city council had gone ahead and approved the $15 per hour minimum wage for implementation this year. A former firefighter, Mitchell came back to work for the city three years ago, starting at $10.41, and now earns $13.13, so this year’s increase won’t affect him.

“I’m fortunate it’s just me and my wife,” Mitchell said. “Our kids are gone, and we have two businesses.” He disclosed to Tim Watson, an organizer with the AFL-CIO-affiliated Working America, that he plans to leave his job with the city at the end of the year.

For younger workers especially, the higher pay would make a difference, Watson said.

“My guy has a wife and kids to support,” he said. “Kids get in trouble. Dad can’t be there as much as he needs to be. He’s working a full-time and a part-time job to make ends meet. If everybody got $15 they could see their kids.”

Besse said it was not only the cost differential between $12.50 and $15 per hour that prevented council from implementing the raise all at once, but also the need to boost pay for other workers who hold slightly more seniority. Without increasing pay for workers at all level of experience, large-scale employers can run into something human resources professionals call “salary compression.”

“The previous standing commitment to bring all the worker categories up to market-competitive levels — in the minds of the majority of the council, that standing commitment took precedent,” Besse said. “We were going to do that first. Second, we were not going to do purely the $15 without making adjustments to salaries to avoid compression. If you combined all those commitments together and said, ‘We’re going to do it all at once as of the start of this new fiscal year,’ the tax increase would have been problematic. You’ve got to lay your groundwork with the public. If you slam ’em with a big hit, you could face some backlash.”

Winston-Salem lags neighboring Greensboro in implementing the $15 an hour minimum wage. Greensboro City Council passed a resolution in 2015 adopting a goal of paying employees at least $15 an hour by 2020. During the recent budget adoption, council moved the timeline up to fiscal year 2018-2019.

“Greensboro workers have more leverage,” Watson said. “They call us ‘Twin Cities,’ but Greensboro is light years ahead of us.”

Greensboro Human Resources Director Jamiah Waterman said staff hasn’t determined when in the next 12 months the city will be able to implement the new $15-an-hour minimum wage, which equates to $31,200.

“When it passed in Greensboro, that was the first time in the South that something like that has occurred,” said Catherine Walton, state director of Working America. “It put Greensboro as a leader in this. We’re excited that Winston-Salem passed the same resolution.”

Mitchell said the lag in Winston-Salem’s implementation of the $15-an-hour goal raises the risk that employees will leave to take advantage of better opportunities in neighboring cities. He said he’s recently spoken with at least two employees — one in vegetation management and the other in utilities — who say they plan to go to work for the city of Greensboro.

“I always hate to lose folks, but we can only do so much so fast,” Besse said. “We’ll do what we can. Hopefully, it will persuade our good folks to stay with us and allow us to recruit more people. If you’ve got folks who think it’s in their interest to travel to Greensboro to work, I can’t argue that they shouldn’t do that.”

Greensboro Mayor Vaughan said beyond advocacy from city workers and their supporters, council members are committed to treating their employees right.

“We really want to make an impact when it comes to poverty,” she said, “and we have to walk that walk. If we want to talk to other employees about paying living wages or livable wages we at least have to be moving in that direction.”

Vaughan said Greensboro has one of the strongest benefits packages in the state. The city was among the first in the state to extend benefits to employees with same-sex partners, in 2006. Winston-Salem followed suit in 2014.

Vaughan said the city has similarly attempted to set an example for private employers by hiring people who have served time in prison.

“We do have a lot of formerly incarcerated people on our staff, and they are very, very good employees,” the mayor said. “We have not regretted any of those hires. That is another message we are trying to send to employers: ‘Please give these people a second chance.’ We can’t go out with that message if we haven’t done it ourselves.”

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