up and up / waferboard

August 9, 2016; Asheville Citizen-Times (Asheville, NC)

Last year, NPQ reported about a North Carolina organization called Just Economics that’s trying to engage businesses and nonprofits in paying a living wage—voluntarily—by providing them with support and certification. Now, we read that Mission Health Systems, the largest employer in the region with 10,700 employees, has upped the pay of more than 200 of its employees to the $11/hour that counts as a true living wage in the region. Employees set to get the increase work in areas like food service and cleaning. MHS did not work directly with Just Economics but did reference its materials to establish the program.

The current minimum wage in North Carolina is $7.25 an hour (matching the federal rate), but Just Economics calculates the true living wage for the region at $11 hourly—as long as health insurance is provided. The Just Economics formula factors in such variables as rents and housing costs, according to executive director Vicki Meath, and the figures are reviewed every year. “Housing has been key in our community,” Meath said. “The discrepancy between wages and housing is significant.”

We know that minimum wage is not enough for a single individual to meet basic needs without public or private assistance anywhere in this country, and certainly not here in Western North Carolina. It’s important for us as a community to decide what is a just minimum.

About 400 local employers take part in Just Economics’ Living Wage Certification Program, including a number of local municipalities, and Meath says its program is among the largest in the nation. Just Economics lists all participating employers on its website so that consumers in the area can review them.

“I think it’s a positive step for Mission and for this community,” she said. “It says something very positive about how we collectively as a community are working to raise the wage floor.”—Ruth McCambridge