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Wake County workers will soon get a living wage

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On Monday, the Wake County Board of Commissioners is set to debate—and likely pass—what its author bills as one of the most robust living-wage ordinances in the state, and indeed the entire American South.

"I've been working on this since my first month in office," says Commissioner Matt Calabria, one of the four Democrats swept into office last November. "The underlying premise for me is if you work for the county, you at least ought to be able to put a roof over your head."

The proposed ordinance he is unveiling would raise the minimum wage for full-time, benefits-eligible county employees to $13.50 an hour. That amount is greater than those of all but one of the eight local governments in North Carolina—Buncombe County, Asheville, Durham, Durham County, Greensboro, Orange County, Carrboro and Chapel Hill—that have adopted a living-wage ordinance. Only Carrboro, at $14.98 an hour, is higher. The others hover between $11 and $13 an hour.

The rate is higher here because, according to county data, the cost of living in the Raleigh area is greater than in any other urban area in North Carolina.

To live in a one-bedroom apartment in Raleigh or Cary, according to the Universal Living Wage formula, you need to earn at least $14.88 an hour ($13.38 an hour with employer-provided health insurance). In Asheville, the next-priciest market in the state, that target is $13.90 an hour. Given that county-provided benefits are worth about $9 an hour, Calabria says, Wake's rate should more than meet the mark.

"We made this move very carefully," says Commissioner John Burns, who, like Calabria, won his office in Wake's 2014 Democratic surge, "after reviewing data and other ordinances. I am convinced it will be good for our employees and our community."

The move would directly affect the pay of about 2 percent of the county's 3,800-person workforce, Calabria says. It will cost taxpayers about $93,000 a year—less than one-hundredth of 1 percent of the $1.14 billion budget.

While the cost is relatively low, Calabria says, the benefits could extend well beyond the 75 or so affected employees. These are, for the most part, what he calls "frontline workers," meaning they tend to interact with residents—nurse's aides, administrative assistants, library assistants. Because higher wages are associated with lower rates of absenteeism and make the county more competitive, Calabria reasons, the public will get better service. There's also the possibility that, once the lowest-paid 75 employees get raises, those a rung or two up from them will as well—the so-called ripple effect.

But more than that, Calabria hopes the county sets an example. Under state law, local governments cannot force private employers—even taxpayer-funded government contractors—to pay anything above the minimum wage. This is the only way they can directly affect wages in their communities.

"Mainly what we want to do is do the right thing for our employees," Calabria says. "We're glad we're going to be able to lead by example."

And when it's done, that will leave only one major local government in the Triangle without such an ordinance.

Your move, Raleigh.

Reach the INDY's Triangulator team at triangulator@indyweek.com.

This article appeared in print with the headline "A living wage for Wake workers"

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