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An Orange County group wants to use peer pressure to push a living wage



Eugene Farrar worked eight hours, and then his friend's water heater burst. He sounds tired. The peril of being handy, it seems, is that your friends expect you to be handy even when you're off the clock.

Since 2010, Farrar has been a custodian for Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools. He's a broad-shouldered 72-year-old with a graying goatee and a thousand-yard scowl. Last Wednesday, he was one of several dozen protesters outside the school system's offices in Chapel Hill. They were rallying against the system's alleged negligence in its treatment of minority employees and students.

"We are simply too top-heavy," Farrar says. Superintendent Tom Forcella makes more than $200,000 a year, he points out, but those on the system's bottom rungs struggle to pay their bills. Farrar makes $11.65 an hour, which works out to a little over $24,000 a year. The median household income in Orange County is $55,569.

For five years, Farrar has heard the promises from local leaders that they would soon pay a living wage. For five years, he's watched those promises come and go.

Today, he's closer to a raise than he's ever been. School officials say that by year's end, all of their employees should make at least $12.75 an hour, the amount most labor experts figure it takes to get by in Orange County. The raise would affect 131 school-system employees.

"They say it's coming," Farrar says. "But we need it now."

Farrar's skepticism is understandable. School leaders have for years blamed state budget cuts while denying raises to frustrated custodians. And last year, the board agreed to begin bidding most of the system's evening custodial services to contractors, who are almost certain to pay their employees even less.

Middling wages are a common complaint throughout the United States, but especially in expensive locales like Orange County. Federal guidelines say that households should not spend more than 30 percent of their annual income on housing. But in Chapel Hill, 56 percent of renters do so, and the town's median home value is a lofty $368,400, the highest in the Triangle.

This week, a band of Orange County activists will launch a grassroots, peer-pressure-driven effort to stand up for workers like Farrar. The Orange County Living Wage Project wants to offer certifications for business owners who promise to meet the $12.75-an-hour threshold for all of their workers. Employers providing health benefits would have to pay at least $11.25 an hour to qualify.

Protestors gathered outside Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools' offices last Wednesday to protest the system's treatment of minority students.
  • Protestors gathered outside Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools' offices last Wednesday to protest the system's treatment of minority students.

This effort, inspired by similar campaigns in Durham and Asheville, is rooted in the acknowledgment that the federal minimum wage, $7.25 an hour, is inadequate. And with state law barring local governments from imposing any wage ordinances on private employers—even government contractors—these kinds of consumer-driven campaigns may be the best way to push employers to hike wages.

"It's an issue that's time has come," says Mark Marcoplos, a builder who—along with Susan Romaine, the co-founder of PORCH, an Orange County nonprofit that fights hunger—is an organizer for the Living Wage Project.

The campaign will calculate the living wage—determined using a formula that factors in the federal poverty level, the price of goods and services and housing costs—on an annual basis. When the threshold rises, business owners will have to re-apply for certification. Certifications will be prominently displayed in participating businesses. Should a business fail to live up to its promises, employees can report it to the campaign for public shaming.

When the campaign officially launches on Friday at Carrboro's Steel String Brewery, Marcoplos says 33 local organizations—including the Orange Water and Sewer Authority, Open Eye Café in Carrboro, Curryblossom Café in Chapel Hill, Marcoplos' small construction company and a number of churches and car repair shops—will be certified.

The list's most recent addition, Carol Woods Retirement Community in Chapel Hill, is a big catch.

The retirement community told campaign leaders that 58 employees will receive pay increases to meet the living-wage threshold. Once the community's pay structure changes, another 50 will see their pay raised as well. Altogether, this amounts to an increase of more than $220,000 a year for Carol Woods employees.

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