By Michelle Cassell
ORANGE COUNTY – Orange County Living Wage (OCLW), a nonprofit organization based in Chapel Hill that advocates for a living wage in Orange County, is setting new goals and expanding its outreach. They began this new chapter with a kick-off fundraiser on Labor Day from 2 to 6 p.m. at Pluck Farm.
The event attracted several hundred people, and OCLW says it was a great success. “We were able to bring attention to our organization and also gather some donations, “ said Debbie Everly, Chair of Orange County Living Wage Board of Directors.
Mayor Damon Seils of Carrboro and Pro Tem Mayor Susan Romaine, a founding member of OCLW, attended the fundraiser. “OCLW has been working hard over the past eight years, certifying and promoting employers, lifting wages and maintaining a job board,” Romaine said. “We have been raising awareness in the community about the challenges so many workers face in trying to make ends meet.”
OCLW works with local businesses to pay their employees a living wage and educates the community about the benefits of paying a living wage to its workers. Their goal, since it was established in 2014, has been to improve the economic well-being of employees and their families, help to reduce poverty and promote a sustainable economy.
“We are extremely excited about our first fundraising event this Labor Day. We feel this was a most appropriate day to lift up the need for wages that meet the basic needs of individuals working in Orange County,” said Everly. The goal of OCLW’s fundraising is to help expand value-added benefits and services offered to certified employers and living wage employees.
“We have worked very hard this past year to create a 3-year strategic plan that advances the overarching mission of OCLW – to certify, recognize, and promote Orange County businesses that pay a living wage and assist workers seeking living wage jobs. One important aspect of our plan is community outreach and education,” Everly added.
OCLW hopes that with a better understanding of what a living wage is and its importance because of what it provides, consumers will seek out living wage employers.
There are currently 267 certified OCLW businesses. OCLW-affiliated businesses are promoted and listed on their website. They also post a job board for OCLW certified businesses.
“To us, it means our workers are more productive. It helps us to maintain the quality of our workers and their longevity and not having to re-train or re-invest in new workers,” said Charles Traitor of Weaver Street Market and a certified OCLW member. “Paying a living wage translates into a better experience in the store …. Across the board, it is not only a social good but an economic good for us.”
“Looking ahead, OCLW wants to do even more. We will move from a working Board to a governing Board, which brings a wider variety of lived experiences,” Romaine said. More visibility in the community will be accomplished by mobilizing and training a bigger team of volunteers.
In their 2023 -2026 strategic plan, OCLW states its objectives for the next three years:
- First, a goal to provide a widely accessible voluntary living wage certification program easily accessible for Orange County communities. Certifying 30 new employers annually to reach 350 employers on their roster will be needed under this plan. The goal includes making sure 10% of newly certified employers are Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC) owned.
- Next, an increase from 17% to 20% of all Orange County employees working for a certified employer and to reintroduce OCLW’s Certification Program to the two largest employers in the county, UNC-Chapel Hill and UNC Hospitals.
- Local government funding is vital and will continue to be an outreach target. Also, increasing private grants and grassroots fundraising with a goal of increasing non-governmental donations to make up more than 50% of OCLW’s revenue.
- OCLW also hopes to establish programming to identify potential businesses and overcome barriers that prevent them from paying a living wage. Specifically helping minority-owned and BIPOC businesses.
The plan incorporates expanding benefits and services to living wage employers and increasing awareness of OCLW. They hope to diversify their Board and add more volunteers and staff. They are currently looking for a part-time executive director.
Everly explained why OCLW is so passionate about what they do. “Our federal minimum wage is currently an abysmal $7.25/hour and has not increased since 2009. This lack of increase has disproportionately harmed women and people of color.”
According to OCLW’s findings, paying a living wage pulls workers out of poverty, and living wage-certified employers report that it’s good for business. A living wage not only improves morale, productivity, and worker retention. Living wages are also positive for the local economy since extra dollars earned mean extra dollars spent locally. “It really is a win-win for everyone – workers, employers, and our community,” Everly said.
Michelle Cassell is a seasoned reporter who has covered everything from crime to hurricanes and local politics to human interest over the course of 35 years. As managing editor, she hopes to encourage writers of a wide range of backgrounds and interests in TLR’s coverage of Southern Orange County news.