Orange County Living Wage, a nonprofit that certifies Orange County employers who pay their workers a living wage, aims to reach 200 employers this year.
A living wage is defined as the minimum amount that a worker must earn to afford their basic necessities, without public or private assistance such as food stamps, according to OCLW.
OCLW certified its first employer in July 2015. Its mission is to certify and promote living wage employment in Orange County, which OCLW defines as $14.25 per hour.
Susan Romaine, chairperson of OCLW’s Steering Committee, said if an employer provides at least half of the employee's health insurance benefits, then the living wage is $12.75 per hour. Romaine said they are proud that not only have they certified 170 employers, but also that some of these employers needed to lift wages in order to qualify. After the program's first year, there were only 54 employers that were certified.
“Among the 170 employers on our roster, some have lifted wages to the tune of over $706,000,” she said.
She said lifting wages can improve local economy.
“Their workers get their pay raised, and typically what happens is they’re going to go out and buy things or fix things,” she said. “So there is $706,000 increase in wage over the last three and a half years, and it actually translates into $2.3 million in our regional economy.”
Scott Conary, president of the Carrboro Coffee Roasters, said they have always focused on keeping up their wages. Carrboro Coffee Roasters, a local small-batch artisan roaster, joined OCLW as the 169th certified employer.
“Hiring professionals, or even creating professionals, you have to pay them appropriately to get to that level," Conary said. "And really just, for a community to thrive, it starts with individuals being able to afford to live in the community. There was not a second thought about making sure that is a primary focus of the company.”
Conary said OCLW was helpful because of its visibility.
“I think it’s helpful for people to see that it’s possible that companies can do it," he said. "For someone like us, who is a wholesaler but has a connection to retail, which is arguably the hardest place for this to work, it’s good to have those examples.”
Romaine said a lot of employers in the community actually thought they were paying a living wage, but realized that they were not, according to the Universal Living Wage formula that OCLW uses. The Universal Living Wage is based on the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development standard, which says no more than 30 percent of a person's gross income should be spent on housing.
OCLW hopes to create a regional living wage program in the future. Romaine said besides creating awareness about what living wage is, OCLW actively promotes its certified employers through social media and events. For example, they hold an event called BUYcott where they encourage consumers to shop from their certified employers on designated days.
“We’re working now with Durham Living Wage, and we’re hoping that we can get a voluntary certification program off the ground in Wake County,” she said. “We’re looking at ways that we could eventually create a regional certification program that would be especially relevant for the bigger employers."
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