Local Nonprofit Addresses Income Inequality by Supporting Workers’ Rights

Employees of Belltree Cocktail Club include: (From left) Jennie Minor, Gina Ruggieri, Zach White, owner Nick Stroud; Andrew Dahlgren, Dan Earixson, and Kyle Satina. Belltree is one of more than 300 local living wage businesses certified by Orange County Living Wage. Photo credit: Submitted photo.


by Michelle Cassell


The Local Reporter

An Orange County Democratic Party meeting held in the living room of Carrboro Mayor Pro Tim Susan Romaine in early 2015 led to a discussion of how to help community members working full-time jobs who were still living in poverty. 

At the time, the federal minimum wage was $7.25, which has not changed since 2009. This community discussion launched Orange County Living Wage (OCLW), which has since gone on to enroll more than 300 local living wage businesses that employ more than 1,700 employees in Orange County.

This grassroots group of concerned citizens decided to model their project after two voluntary living wage programs in North Carolina — Just Economics of Western North Carolina (based in Asheville) and the Durham Living Wage Project.

Today, the OCLW is a volunteer-driven 501(C)3 nonprofit working to promote a living wage in Orange County by certifying employers and local businesses who pay the living wage of $15.85 per hour or $14.35 per hour provided the employer pays at least half the cost of their employees’ health insurance.

The minimum wage in North Carolina is the same as the current federal minimum wage — $7.25 per hour, according to the N.C. Department of Labor.

The lowest amount a North Carolina employer can pay a tipped employee is $2.13 per hour. This is usually an employee who provides direct customer service, such as a server, bartender, barista, or hairstylist. The employee must earn enough in tips to reach at least $7.25 per hour, or the employer must pay them an hourly wage to meet the minimum wage requirement.

“Since we formed OCLW, our Living Wage Certified Employers have lifted wages in Orange County by $2.1 million dollars,” Romaine, the director of OCLW, recently told The Local Reporter.

Romaine said she’s very proud of this figure and explained how when people get higher wages, they are very often spent right here in our community.

“Living wage workers can go out — get their hair cut, fix their car, make repairs, or maybe they are even able to go out to dinner,” she said. “These wage increases result in money being spent in our local community and in some cases, at our Certified Living Wage Workplaces. This helps  give our local economy a shot in the arm.”

On June 16, OCLW qualified as one of three finalists named in the Nonprofits of the Year award hosted by the Chamber for a Greater Chapel-Hill Carrboro at the 2022 Business Excellence Awards.

“We were very honored to be singled out as one of the nominees by the Chamber,” said Romaine. “We are trying to partner with the Chamber more and more because we think that the work we do is not only so crucial in lifting wages, but it is vital in terms of economic development of Orange County and beyond.”

Certified employers enjoy recognition, incentives, and awards for providing a living wage, Romaine said. OCLW’s mission is to increase awareness of wage inequality and educate the community about the benefits of paying living wages that lead to a sustainable local economy.

“Employers who are certified experience more productivity in their workers, better morale, attendance, and customer relations,” said Romaine.

 All certified employers receive storefront signs they can display in the workplace that certifies them as a community living wage employer. They also have a job board they can use on the Orange County Living Wage website.

“Among the 300 employers are many opportunities for connecting,” Romaine said. “We have lots of people and many organizations. For example,  Durham Tech, and the public school systems are living wage employers.”

“We are trying to combine job openings with organizations on our roster where we attempt to connect job openings with organizations that represent employees who may be searching for jobs. We think that is another tremendous benefit of being on our living wage roster,” Romaine added.

Orange County Living Wage Certified employers come from all facets of the community, including: medical care; restaurants; specialty stores; dentistry; builders; wellness services; home repair services; childcare and early childhood education; transportation; animal care; media and photography; senior services; engineering; planning; land use; entertainment; hair salons; stylists; real estate firms; financial services; along with area farms and markets.

Employers wishing to get certified by OCLW can simply visit the Orange County Living Wage website, choose “get certified,” and fill out an application.

“Orange County Living Wage was an opportunity that offered Crystal Clear Cleaning a chance to be seen in a very professional way, as well as balancing my values and my core beliefs about work and humanity and valuing everybody’s contribution,” said Jane Meadows, the proprietor of Crystal Clear Cleaning. “I wanted to be part of this organization because they elevated my business to a respectful place and gave me a chance to honor the hard-working people that are working with Crystal Cleaning.”

My Muses Card Shop in Carrboro is one of more than 300 local living wage businesses that boasts membership in the Orange County Living Wage nonprofit. Photo credit: Michelle Cassell.

Mary Dowd, an employee at My Muses Card Shop in Carrboro, said she’s pleased to be working for an OCLW company.

“They pay me a decent living wage, and I can now afford my first apartment in the area,” said Dowd. “My first job here was working in a frame shop, making $4 less per hour than here — and it was a heavy workload. I am delighted to be responsible for running the card shop and earning fair pay.”

Nick Stroud, owner of Belltree Cocktail Club in Carrboro, and his business partner Zach White managed to survive the six-month shutdown mandated by the state during the pandemic. Stroud and White expanded and renovated the upscale cocktail bar beginning in 2021 and reopened two months ago.

“We doubled down on our investment, and with a lot of community support, we are doing very well,” Stroud said.

Stroud’s investment was not limited to brick and mortar but also to his loyal employees.

“At Belltree, I always paid $5 per hour — more than the $2.13 per hour service employees are usually paid. When you added up tips over the hours they work, plus the hourly stipend which helped to cover taxes, it added up to a living wage.”

But Stroud started looking at what he was asking of his staff with the same amount of pay and double the capacity he considered different options of providing a living wage.

“I saw a lot of food service and beverage industry people paying a living wage but taking away tips,” he said.  “That never sat well with me.”

Stroud said he decided to pay my employees the Orange County living wage of $15.85 per hour, but allow them to keep their tips as well.

“You should have seen the smiles on their faces,” he added. “They were happy to come to work and proud to work here.”

Stroud explained that now they have the comfort of knowing that even if it is a slow shift, they will make a living wage.

“Yes, I expect them to pay a little more attention to detail, clean a little harder,” he said. “I think the onus is on the small business owners to be the leaders and the examples in the community.”

Stroud said he’s been in the service industry for more than 20 years and knows how tough it can be. Belltree currently employs nine people, and White serves as the main bartender. Belltree is not Stroud’s only business, and he is considering his options at other locations.

“Many people in the service industry are run down by their job,” Stroud said. “They have to work 40 plus hours to make ends meet, and they don’t have time for anything else.”

Stroud went on to say long hours takes its toll on people who aren’t taking on these jobs as a stopgap — there are “lifers.” Stroud said he does not ask his customers to tip 20 or 30 percent unless they want to.

Stroud said he sees that many upscale restaurants in the area have increased prices not just because of inflation, but to handle paying the living wage. The living wage will vary from county to county in North Carolina based on the median income. 

“I think the way we are going in this country, that paying a living wage will become mandatory,” he said.  “And if you are not already thinking about implementing it, you will get caught in a bad position.”

Stroud said that by obtaining the Orange County Living Wage Certification and being vocal about the importance of paying a living wage represents one way to stay ahead of the curve.

Stroud pointed out that in major cities like Portland, Oregon, employers are already feeling the impact of wage hike mandates. A 2016 bill signed into law by Oregon Governor Kate Brown changed the minimum wage gradually over six years. As of July 1, the minimum wage in Portland is $14.75 per hour.

“Our goal is to have a thriving business that uplifts and supports the community,” said Stroud.

The biggest source of funding for operations of OCLW comes from Orange County and the towns of Chapel Hill and Carrboro, said Romaine.

“My sense is that we get government support because we are doing important work that would normally be part of a government agency…and we do it in a much more cost-effective way in the sense that we are volunteer-driven and that we can do this work through donations from the communities in Orange County,” she said.

If you are interested in volunteering or donating to OCLW click on orangecountylivingwage.org and select Get Involved or Donate.

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