Low-income workers aren’t waiting for the general election to push their message about raising the minimum wage for everyone.
Leading up to Super Tuesday, organizers with the Raising Wages NC coalition in North Carolina pushed candidates for state office to commit to fighting for a living wage law that doesn’t leave anyone out.
“It is not a lot to ask. It is what we need to live like damn human beings,” said Waffle House worker Sara Fearrington at a “People’s Hearing” that took place in Raleigh in February.
Addressing candidates for the North Carolina legislature, Fearrington emphasized that tipped workers should be included in state legislation to raise wages.
“Some people say they live paycheck to paycheck. Well I live tip to tip... Every day one of our guests doesn’t tip. And then I’m working for only $3.10 an hour.”
Fearrington said she was living with her husband and three children in a hotel room when one day her tips were so low they couldn’t afford to stay the night. She and her children moved into a homeless shelter and were stuck there for eight months.
“It’s a slavery wage. It’s a Jim Crow wage… $7.25 is a white supremacy wage.”
Last year, Democrats in North Carolina’s House of Representatives introduced a bill to increase the minimum wage to 15 dollars over five years and index it to inflation. It would also end a sub-minimum wage for disabled workers, phase out the tipped sub-minimum wage, and eliminate exemptions for agricultural and domestic workers.
Those provisions are part of the reason workers are mobilizing early in the election cycle. While both Democrats and Republicans in North Carolina have voiced support for the 15 dollar minimum wage, it’s less certain how many will agree to extend that to workers who have historically been excluded from minimum wage laws.
That’s a lot of workers who could potentially be left out.
Victor Canales Gamiño, a Youth Organizing Director at Student Action with Farmworkers told candidates that there are 150,000 farmworkers in North Carolina who make an average annual income of $11,000.
“I’m tired of having to refer people to get food, when they’re the ones who pick the fruits and vegetables that we eat everyday,” he said.
A 15 dollar minimum wage for farmworkers could have a ripple effect on education outcomes for rural school districts, where many families rely on the help of children who have to work in the fields instead of focusing on schoolwork.
To convince candidates, organizers are leveraging the help of small business owners who hiked their wages and have seen profits rise.
“I have been lobbied and told that I shouldn’t pay a living wage because I would have to cut jobs, and if everyone does this prices will go up,” said Sarah Parker, who owns a catering company in Durham.
“I’ll tell you, that’s BS.”
Parker said her business has done better since she raised wages. A local construction company owner also spoke at the hearing and said that after starting a living wage program two years ago, his profits went up. The average salary at his company is $22.60, and he also offers paid vacation and paid sick leave.
“Everyday one of our guests doesn’t tip. And then I’m working for only $3.10 an hour.”
Raising the minimum wage would bring North Carolina in step with 21 other states where wage increases went into effect this year. And it would blaze a trail in the South, where pro-worker policies have met with backlash.
North Carolina Democrats are six seats away from flipping the state house in November. If that happens, the minimum wage bill would have a shot.
But whether the provisions to include all workers stay in or land on the cutting room floor could depend on which candidates make it to the general election.
Ten candidates from districts in Eastern North Carolina, including several who sponsored the living wage bill, attended the people’s hearing. All expressed general support for raising the minimum wage. Pierce Freelon, who is running for Senate District 20, took a notably strong stance.
After dropping bars from the song “Money, Power, Respect,” by The Lox, Freelon said the term “poverty wage” isn’t adequate to describe the current floor of $7.25
“It’s a slavery wage. It’s a Jim Crow wage… $7.25 is a white supremacy wage,” he said.