Nearly half of North Carolina’s workforce is made up of hourly workers.
These women and men are the ones who make our society run: they cook our food, stock our shelves, transport and deliver our goods, care for our children, elderly and sick, and a thousand things in between. Last year, during the COVID pandemic, they were called “heroes.” Yet they are also paid very low wages, work under strenuous conditions, and enjoy little or no protection – much less respect – by North Carolina’s most powerful leaders.
A new report from Carolina Forward proposes several ways that those state leaders can change course. In Our Daily Bread: The Hourly Workers Package, authors Blair Reeves and Alex H. Jones examine the state of North Carolina’s hourly workforce. They distill six key policy recommendations for ensuring working-class North Carolinians receive a fairer share of economic growth as our state and nation emerge from the COVID pandemic.
Median wages for North Carolina’s working class have lagged behind the national average for generations. They have been long hamstrung by both historical factors, like a legacy of low-wage agricultural and textile industries, and deliberate ones, namely a deeply entrenched big-business lobby that works tirelessly for its own benefit. Leaders from both parties have, for decades, allowed large corporate interests to dictate policy on issues such as wages, working conditions and regulatory enforcement. This has resulted in nearly half of North Carolina’s workforce today working for poverty wages at the mercy of large, corporate employers who treat them as utterly disposable.
This situation is not just unnecessary and cruel – it is also a conscious policy choice. There is nothing economically inevitable about worker wages stagnating while executive pay skyrockets and corporations plow their free cash flow into stock buybacks. It is simply the stated preference of leaders who choose to permit it.
In Our Daily Bread, the authors outline a series of state-level economic reforms to change course. They would establish structural changes that would harness the power of markets and free enterprise to empower working-class North Carolinians and direct more economic gains into their pockets and families:
- Raising the minimum wage to $15 an hour, indexing it permanently to cost-of-living increases, and closing the many loopholes that employers use to dodge proper labor costs.
- Ending wage theft through targeted enforcement and structural changes to the state’s Department of Labor.
- Establishing mandatory breaks, paid leave and sick time for all workers, and making employers compensate employees for highly unpredictable “just-in-time” scheduling.
- Restoring the state’s crippled unemployment insurance program by bringing benefit levels up to the national average and strengthening the agency’s ability to deliver them to eligible applicants.
- Unlocking wage growth by banning artificial barriers to worker mobility, including non-competes, anti-poaching agreements and several forms of occupational licensure.
- Tip negotiating power back in workers’ favor by repealing the state “right to work” law, and permitting workers to establish unions in their workplaces.
We live in a time when large corporations are gaining more and more power across the American economy, politics and society at large. In North Carolina’s half-trillion dollar economy, hourly workers will likely always be at a power disadvantage to their employers, who have greater financial means, connections and political access. Yet our leaders have the power to ensure that North Carolina’s working class isn’t left behind. Amazon, big box retailers and agricultural conglomerates are very good at delivering goods to consumers, but they cannot be expected to have the same regard for North Carolinians’ well-being that our democratically elected representatives should. It’s time those representatives put our workers first in line for the fruits of economic growth, and allowed our working class to thrive.