Ideas Worth Stealing: Encouraging employers to pay living wages with a carrot, not a stick

     Fast food worker Lateefa Davis gathers with others for a May Day demonstration calling for a raise of the minimum wages to $15 an hour Friday, May 1, 2015, at a McDonald's restaurant in Philadelphia, Pa. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)

    Fast food worker Lateefa Davis gathers with others for a May Day demonstration calling for a raise of the minimum wages to $15 an hour Friday, May 1, 2015, at a McDonald's restaurant in Philadelphia, Pa. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)

    A non-profit in North Carolina is trying to convince employers to pay living wages through a voluntary program. 

    Ideas Worth Stealing: Every week, Keystone Crossroads will look to cities across the world for lessons in urbanism and municipal governance that could benefit Pennsylvania. No city does it all right, and we hope these examples from metropolises near and far inspire and encourage cities here to think outside the box. 

    In Pennsylvania, the minimum wage is $7.25 per hour, which is the same as the federal standard. Keystone Crossroads previously reported that that’s about half of what a worker needs to earn to afford a “modest” one-bedroom apartment in the state, and many people don’t make that. (It varies from city to city and can be significantly higher.)

    Various solutions have been proposed to help workers – workforce training to prepare people for higher-paying jobs, more affordable housing units in tight markets, and more effective government assistance. Raising the minimum wage has also been proposed, with groups across the state lobbying for $15 per hour wages. 

    So far, in Pennsylvania, that hasn’t gone anywhere.

    But for Asheville, N.C. businesses, paying a living wage has become a voluntary buy-in effort that comes with its own badge of honor.

    In North Carolina, like in Pennsylvania, local municipalities cannot pass wage ordinances for all workers. That falls to the state. And while cities in both states, including Asheville and Pittsburgh, have passed ordinances that require them to pay a living wage to city workers, that does not apply to people employed in the private sector.

    Just Economics, a non-profit that works on economic development and equality issues in Western North Carolina, worked on the campaign to raise Asheville city workers’ wages. The organization also runs a Living Wage Employer Certification Program. The program distributes certificates to businesses who pay their employees a living wage, at least $12.50 per hour in that region. They also maintain a directory of certified businesses and market them to consumers in the region. The program is voluntary.     

    Living Wage Program Coordinator Joey Lopez, said participating employers tell him that patrons are excited to do business with them when they see the certificate, which many businesses post in their windows and prominently display inside. “Because people know where their money is going and they’re enjoying supporting businesses that are in a way giving back to the community by making sure that the people in the community are making enough money to survive,” Lopez said.         

    Lopez added that there’s less turnover in participating businesses, which saves them money in the long-run.

    Currently, about 400 businesses large and small participate in the program. Many were already paying wages that met the program’s criteria, but others had to raise wages to qualify. Lopez said the local food co-op gave a significant number of raises to receive a certificate. The co-op is the only grocer that’s living-wage certified, something Lopez said could drive consumers into the store.

    Executive Director of Just Economics, Vicki Meath, said the organization does not have the resources to do an in-depth study of the economic impact of the certification program. But she said they estimate just the wage increases at participating businesses to be around $1 million annually.  

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