'I Can't Take It No More': NC Workers Demand $15 Minimum Wage
Back in February, cooks and cashiers went on a noontime strike to protest low pay. They held big letters that read "PAY US $15 Now" while cars honked horns in solidarity.
Sylcoria Carroll, a McDonald’s worker in Durham who gets paid $8.50 an hour, said she just couldn't take it anymore.
"The highest check I ever got was literally $291," she said. "I can't take it no more."
Carroll is pregnant with her third child, and says she's on the brink of homelessness.
"I'm struggling in this poverty," she said. "This job is not worth $8.50. I need $15 now."
Yet she and thousands of workers across the state will have to wait. The federal $1.9 trillion stimulus bill did not include a measure to raise the federal minimum wage. North Carolina, like 21 others that set state-level minimums, is as low as federal law allows: $7.25, a figure which hasn't changed since 2009.
"And when that happens, when we don't raise the minimum wage to meet what it costs to live, we have a whole host of challenges when things like a pandemic hit," said Alexandra Forter Sirota, Director of the Budget and Tax Center with the progressive leaning N.C. Justice Center.
Restaurant workers in North Carolina on average make less than $21,464 per year, according to business.org. That ranks the Tar Heel state 42nd in the nation. At the other end of the economic spectrum, North Carolinians with money invested in the stock market saw their 401K balances increase by 23% just since the start of the pandemic.
"That has created these inequities," said Forter Sirota. "And I would say particularly along lines of race as well."
Not only are high-income workers more likely to be able to work from home, they also are more likely to be able to invest, which builds generational wealth.
"Many of those workers of color are disconnected from some of the key tools of wealth building," said Forter Sirota. "And over generations that impacts the ability to continue to support strong economic outcomes that are equitable."
Not everyone agrees. Mitch Kokai of the conservative-leaning John Locke Foundation takes the position that juxtaposing minimum wage with 401K plans is a false comparison.
"The minimum wage worker tends not to be the person who is earning the sole wage in a household but supporting a family," he said. "A large percentage of minimum wage workers are teenagers or people who would be typically early college age who are working a job to help as they're going through school. Or they're the second earner in a family, so that family that has a much higher wage earner has as a secondary income."
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, more than half of workers at or below minimum wage are 25 years and older. Estimates differ on how many of those are the primary wage in a household, with progressive think tanks generally pegging that figure higher than conservative groups.
Kokai repeats the often-cited claim that a higher mandated minimum wage would reduce overall employment, especially for those at the bottom.
"If you're an employer, and you're looking at a potential employee, and you know you have to pay this person $15 an hour, you're going to be much less inclined to take a flyer on someone who has no experience, no background, no credentialing," he said. "It's much easier for you to take a chance on that person at $7.25 an hour than it would be at $15 an hour."
It's complicated to offer specifics on what a higher minimum wage might do to employment. For example, if someone who works two minimum wage jobs can make the same amount of money working just one, that would be a positive development for that person, but reflect differently in the employment data.
If minimum wage were to increase, the Congressional Budget Office estimates a drop in overall employment. Though it also estimates that more than one million people would be lifted out of poverty.
Instead of a minimum wage increase, Kokai says governments should enact programs that specifically help low income families in need, but don't hamstring employers' ability to hire workers starting out.
"It would be much better to have a more targeted program for those folks than to raise the minimum wage as a blanket policy and create some negative unintended consequences," he said.
Progressive groups say that sounds nice, but every time they suggest such targeted measures, conservative groups find something not to like about those as well.
In North Carolina, for instance, the Republican-led legislature actually did away with the Earned Income Tax credit, a program largely seen as targeting help to low income households, while also encouraging work. Also, the same legislative leadership refuses to expand Medicaid, something that would largely help low-income families.
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