By Landon Bost
Orange County Living Wage formed in a living room because of Dillon. Well, at least because of his rule.
The U.S. Congress last raised the federal minimum wage, to $7.25 an hour, in July 2009. That’s equivalent to $290 for a 40-hour work week or $15,080 per year. States can raise their minimum wage above that; 29 states and Washington, D.C, have done so — but North Carolina has not.
“Dillon’s Rule,” derived from two court decisions made by Judge John F. Dillon of Iowa in 1868, says that local governments can only exercise powers granted to them by the state. Unlike cities such as New York, Chicago and San Francisco, municipalities in North Carolina like the towns of Carrboro and Chapel Hill can’t raise their minimum wages within their jurisdictions because of Dillon’s Rule.
The rule led to the formation of OC Living Wage, a volunteer nonprofit that certifies local businesses that pay their employees a livable wage, not just a minimum wage — that is, pays them an income which allows them to maintain a normal standard of living.
“We knew that we were limited in what we could do in terms of change in the state legislature,” Susan Romaine, the chair of OC Living Wage, said. “So we decided, let’s look for some kind of voluntary living wage certification program, so we could at least do something to try to encourage some employers to make their minimum wage closer to a living wage.”
Since OC Living Wage was founded in 2015, it has certified 223 local employers ranging from child care and legal services to restaurants and specialty stores that offer a living wage. It has even had 16 new employers joining the roster since the pandemic began in March.
Some employers were already paying a living wage before certification, but others had to raise their wages.
“For that group of employers that needed to lift wages,” Romaine said, “they have now done so to the tune of $853,000. “And that wage increase over the last five years has stimulated our regional economy by over $3 million.”
Romaine, also a member of the Carrboro Town Council, said that one of the most important benefits of living in a community where employers pay a living wage is that employees can live in the community where they work.
“Only about 20 percent of people who are working in the Chapel Hill/Carrboro community are also living here,” Romaine said. “They just can’t afford to; the rent is too high. And so, they’re commuting from surrounding counties such as Alamance and Chatham, and in Durham.
“That’s another thing that we have really tried to emphasize with this living wage effort is how important it is that we create more opportunities for people who work here to live here, to spend their money locally here, to feel more invested in the community.”
The living wage fluctuates every year. North Carolina’s living wage for 2021 is $15.40 an hour, or $13.40 if the employer provides health benefits. OC Living Wage employers must recertify every year at the new living wage.
Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, OC Living Wage has offered a grace period until June 2021 for its employers to recertify and OC Living Wage turned its annual appeal into a fundraiser for its employers.
Mac Welliver is the owner of Welliver Window Washing, a certified local small business with only two employees. He offers his employees a living wage he said to take financial worries off their plates.
“I free them up to do exceptional work,” Welliver said. “Word gets around about the quality we produce and we get more and more business. Plus, I don’t have to feel like some of the employers I still harbor ill-feeling towards in my youth. Minimum wage was $4.75 when I started my working career doing landscaping. That’s a lot of sweat equity for a 16-year-old to put into a lava lamp from Spencer’s Gifts.”
The low federal minimum wage, which has been eroded by inflation, “has been especially hard for women and for people of color who disproportionately hold minimum wage jobs,” Romaine said.
Margaret Pender, an owner of Victoria Park Florist, remembers the struggles of having a low-income.
“Living wage helps the whole community,” Pender said, “not just the individual.”
Lynne Yellin is the office manager at Carrboro Family Vision, which has been a part of the OC Living Wage program since 2017. Carrboro Family Vision already offered most of its employees a living wage before certification.
“[OC Living Wage is] a real partner for you,” Yellin said. “If you’re part of them, they also promote your business. They’ll put you out there so that people are aware and know that you are a living wage provider.”
The nonprofit provides employers an OC Living Wage certificate to display in their stores, promotes them when a new employer joins and has a job board for those looking for employment that provides a living wage.
“I’m hoping that as we come out of the pandemic,” Romaine said, “there will be more and more of a movement toward treating essential workers as they are essential and paying them as they’re essential as well.”