Representatives and candidates for the General Assembly addressed concerns of minimum wage workers and allies during a rally at First Baptist Church in Raleigh on Thursday.
A coalition called Raising Wages NC called for the event to advocate for raising the minimum wage from $7.25 to $15 an hour, indexing it to inflation to account for the rising annual cost of living, and allowing workers to form unions.
The public hearing was intended to get candidates for governor, labor commissioner and the General Assembly to state their position on raising the minimum wage before the upcoming elections in November. The audience and speakers were adamant that the members of the panel give a clear answer to the question of raising the minimum wage to $15 an hour.
“We don’t want it tomorrow,” Deborah Brockington, a member of the National Domestic Workers Alliance, told the panel. “We want it right now.”
The coalition is comprised of nearly 30 organizations, labor groups, advocates, business and faith leaders from all over the state who believe $7.25 an hour is no longer a living wage for workers in North Carolina.
“We work! We sweat! Put 15 on our checks!” rang through the fellowship hall as the rally began, a chant initiated by speakers Darlene Bacon and David Dixon.
Dozens of workers and allies gave testimony about their personal experiences holding minimum wage jobs. They described the difficulties they faced because the minimum wage does not adequately meet their needs to pay for rent, utilities, food, medicine and other necessities.
Many speakers had been working low-wage jobs since childhood in order to save money and support their families. Sara Fearrington, a 43-year-old Waffle House server and mother of three, said she has worked in nearly every field since the age of seven, trying to support her family and keep a roof over their heads.
“I would like to share a very personal experience with all of you,” she told the panel. “At the time, I was homeless, living with my husband and my youngest three children in a hotel.”
Fearrington went on to explain how she counted the money she had made that day only to discover she would not have enough to pay for another night at the hotel. She and her husband had to make the decision to live apart for the time being, while she and her children moved into a homeless shelter.
“We spent eight months in that shelter, me and my three children, working at Waffle House, depending on tips and $3.10 an hour,” she said.
Several people called out encouragement and support for Fearrington as she told her story. It was one that resonated with many in the audience who shared the experience of working full-time jobs while being homeless. General Assembly candidate Joe Parrish, who is running in the Democratic primary against N.C. Rep. Verla Insko (D-Orange), said he had experienced this personally.
"I'm really touched to hear a lot of the stories tonight because I have been employed and homeless at the same time," he said.
Ashley Stevens said she recently joined NC Raise Up, a member organization of Raising Wages NC, because she wanted to help ensure she would be making at least $15 an hour to support herself and her two daughters. She said she worked in fast food for seven years making minimum wage before going back to school to become a certified medical assistant (CMA).
“For several years, I worked as a CMA,” she said. “I was living in Charlotte and making $16 an hour. I was able to pay my bills and take care of myself and my first daughter, but it was never perfect. In other words, I know firsthand that $15 an hour is bare minimum.”
Every candidate and elected official who attended gave their position, with the overwhelming majority explicitly stating they would vote yes on a bill to raise the minimum wage and index it to inflation. The majority of the candidates were Democrats, but Michael Nelson, Libertarian candidate for N.C. House District 35 in Wake County, also gave his support.
“I walked in this room tonight and I was going to say no,” Nelson said. “I’m walking out of this room tonight saying I don’t think we have a choice, it has to be yes.”
To get the day's news and headlines in your inbox each morning, sign up for our email newsletters.