Give North Carolina A Raise

May 10, 2021

If you’ve driven around most parts of North Carolina recently, you’ve almost certainly seen “Help Wanted” signs in the windows of local businesses – especially if you stopped in for a bite to eat. Employers in lots of fields, but especially in the retail and food service industries, are racing to hire enough workers to meet consumer demand. It’s a (labor) sellers’ market.

For some, though, having too many jobs available is still something worth complaining about. There have been breathless media stories about employers – usually fast-food joints – struggling to hire fast enough. Go drop by your closest Bojangles, Cookout or Chik-fil-A, and there’s a good chance they’ll drop a recruiting flyer in your bag. On just such a fact-finding trip performed over the weekend, our local Bojangles was offering $10.50 an hour. Several area restaurants are offering prospective employees $250 in on-the-spot hiring bonuses, and more.

While these numbers are impressive, it’s worth putting them into perspective:

  • 40 hours a week (if workers can get that many) at $10.50 an hour is only $420 a week in gross wages, or $1,680 a month – before taxes. 
  • Maybe you get the hiring bonus in your first month, bringing you up to $1,930 (again, before taxes), but’s a one-month blip. 
  • $1,680 is an annualized gross income of $20,160 – a poverty wage almost anywhere, and certainly in most places in North Carolina.

Working in food service and/or retail is a very valuable learning experience that more white-collar professionals, and certainly policymakers, should have. While any job is an honorable endeavor, it’s hard, often dirty and frequently undignified work. While $10.50 an hour probably sounds dreamy to those who last worked a part-time hourly gig 20 years ago in college, it is far less exciting to grown adults relying on those jobs in the year 2021.

Raise the Wage

We polled North Carolinians and found that they overwhelmingly support raising the minimum wage to $15 an hour.

As on most issues, there is a clear partisan gap on the issue, with Democrats far more supportive of raising the wage than Republicans, and Independents evenly split. (Even there, though, 1 in 4 Republicans supports raising it too.) There were wide racial splits too:

There is a remarkable contrast in support among racial groups, with Black and Hispanic respondents strongly supportive and white ones leaning slightly against. People of color are far more disproportionately likely to work low-wage hourly jobs, and this result likely reflects that. It is overwhelmingly white Republicans who oppose raising the wage.

HB2 and Local Control

Another topic we polled was whether local governments in North Carolina should have the authority to raise the minimum wage just within their jurisdictions. On this question, respondents were even more supportive, and much more broadly:

By a big margin, North Carolinians think local governments should have the authority to govern wages within their borders. While Democrats and Independents were very positive, Republican support rose 15 points – almost split evenly. This suggests that many Republicans value a “small government,” local control approach over wages.

There is, in fact, an open legal question about whether local governments in North Carolina have this authority or not. In 2016, state lawmakers clearly assumed they did, because Republicans specifically prohibited local governments from passing wage ordinances as a part of the disastrous HB2 debacle; and they kept the prohibition in place in HB142, the partial repeal. Article II, Section 24 of the state constitution, which outlines limits on local legislation, is quite vague on what authorities, exactly, it permits local governments to exercise. With the sunset of HB142, and thus the local wage ordinance ban, local governments in the state should once again consider broaching the issue. It will almost certainly be decided in the state courts.

Among voters, however, this is simply not a controversial issue. A clear majority of voters, including half of Republicans, favor allowing local governments this power. This is because the logic makes sense: the prevailing local wage in Craven county may simply be different than that in Mecklenburg. Rural voters may be uncertain about a $15 an hour wage in their own area, but see the economic rationale in larger ones.

While a $15 an hour minimum wage is broadly popular all by itself, and lawmakers should do it, many Republicans are still not sold on it as a policy across the board. Thus, as a possible alternative, leaders should consider simply allowing local governments to decide the issue for themselves. If the voters of Wilmington, Wilkesboro or Wake Forest see the need to raise the wage in their own communities, they should have the freedom to do so.

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