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The Daily Tar Heel

Orange County living wage increases due to rising rent

Back Alley Bikes, photographed on Feb. 2, is located in Carborro. Back Alley Bikes is an Orange County living wage certified business.

The county's living wage rose from $15.40 to $15.85 an hour this year after adjusting for rising rent prices, according to Orange County Living Wage.

Susan Romaine, the founder of Orange County Living Wage, said a minimum wage is insufficient for keeping people above the poverty level, but providing a living wage helps.

“We feel like if you are working a full-time job, you should be living above the poverty level,” Romaine said.

Why it matters

A living wage is the minimum amount an individual must earn per hour to afford basic necessities in their area. The Universal Living Wage Calculation, which is determined using an expected 30 percent of personal income spent on housing, establishes the local living wage.

The minimum wage in North Carolina has been at the federal level of $7.25 an hour since 2009.

The fair market monthly rent for a one-bedroom apartment in the Durham-Chapel Hill metro area rose 5.75 percent in the new year to $1,030, according to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. The living wage in Orange County grew by 2.92 percent in 2021.

Romaine said earning a living wage reduces stress.

“When you are at $7.25 an hour, you are living very close to the edge,” she said. “You live paycheck to paycheck. You’re trying to decide which bills get the highest priority. I have no doubt that one very important benefit of a living wage is to at least reduce some of that stress.”

Romaine, who is also a member of the Carrboro Town Council, said employers providing a living wage can encourage people who work in the Chapel Hill-Carrboro area to also live there.

Delores Bailey, executive director of the Chapel Hill-based affordable housing nonprofit EMPOWERment, Inc., said working with struggling renters and homeowners in the area helped convince her to provide a living wage to her employees.

She thinks UNC should do the same.

“There are a lot of folks who are working at the hospital, there are people who are working at the University, cleaning up the buildings, landscaping, picking up trash,” Bailey said. “There are a lot of them who need to be making at least a living wage.”

Orange County Living Wage offers a voluntary living wage certification for employers and aims to incentivize consumer interaction with certified businesses through marketing and promotion. 

More than 200 local businesses and nonprofits are currently on the certification roster.

Living wage-certified businesses

One of those businesses is Brandwein’s Bagels. Founder Alex Brandwein said providing a living wage is important for supporting valuable employees. 

“The team members that work for us are everything,” Brandwein said. “They’re the ones that make this thing go. We really are about being part of this community and supporting the people in it, and for me, that starts with providing meaningful work, a supportive environment and a living wage.”

Brandwein said he hopes the culture of his business, which includes providing a living wage, provides a more sustainable experience for his employees. 

“Everyone’s got so much on their plate,” Brandwein said. “Hopefully it makes everything just a little bit better for them.”

School of Rock Chapel Hill owner David Joseph said part of his motivation for providing a living wage for his employees is to compete in the labor market. School of Rock offers music lessons to the community. 

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He said he has implemented paid time off, retirement plans and bonuses to reward his employees for staying with the business throughout the pandemic.

Joseph also said he believes the minimum wage should be increased to address rising living wage figures.

“Someone is making more money, and it’s typically not the low person on the totem pole,” Joseph said. 

The Meantime Coffee Co., an on-campus, student-run coffee shop, was recently certified by Orange County Living Wage. Meantime CEO Alaina Plauche said the decision to officially begin doing so was made due to low tips at the height of the pandemic.

“We realized, ‘Hey, with our current pay structure, people are only getting paid $9 or $10 an hour,’ which is not sustainable at all,” Plauche said.

With the minimum wage sitting at less than half of the recommended living wage in Orange County, Plauche said institutional changes need to be made.

“Things are getting more expensive, as they do,” Plauche said. “But also, at the same time, the minimum wage has not risen at all.”

Romaine said Orange County Living Wage hopes to expand a mentoring program in 2022, in which businesses already providing a living wage would guide aspiring living wage providers toward their goal.

"If there has been a silver lining to the pandemic, it's that it has shined a spotlight on wages," she said. 


@DTHCityState | 

Ethan E. Horton

Ethan E. Horton is the 2023-24 city & state editor at The Daily Tar Heel. He has previously served as a city & state assistant editor and as the 2023 summer managing editor. Ethan is a senior pursuing a double major in journalism and media and political science, with a minor in history.