Minimum Wage May Go Up A Buck

The Senate voted 37-12 for a $1-per-hour increase in the minimum wage to $6.15, a year after the idea appeared dead thanks to support from pro-business legislators and high poll numbers. The House approved one several weeks ago.

An increase in the minimum wage, which has been at $5.15 SINCE 1997, should put more in the wallets of nearly 140,000 workers who currently receive less than $6.15 per hour starting in January 2007.

The current minimum wage earns a worker $10,712 annually, or about $2,500 below the federal poverty level for a family of two. Increasing the minimum wage would give the worker another $173 per month, but still wouldn’t exceed that poverty threshhold.

“It’s just a small increase that we’re asking for,” said MaryBe McMillan, secretary-treasurer of the North Carolina State AFL-CIO, which was part of a COALITION this year pushing for the wage. “You shouldn’t be in poverty while you work.”

Sen. Janet Cowell, D-Wake, called the increase “a step in the right direction” for the poorest North Carolinians.

“There’s a lot of folks out there working hard who still aren’t making a living and can’t even afford basic things like health care and housing,” Cowell said.

But small business advocates, who largely have been the sole voices in opposition to raising the minimum wage in recent months, said the increase will lead to shorter hours or layoffs, particularly in rural areas.

“The minimum wage throws a curve ball at the small businesses of our state,” Sen. Fred Smith, R-Johnston, who owns a development company with nearly 700 workers. He said he doesn’t pay anyone below $6.15 per hour but doesn’t support a mandated minimum wage: “I don’t believe that’s the role of the government, to interfere in the private economy and the free market.”

Sen. Phil Berger, R-Rockingham, said the increase would hurt the state economy.

“I think we could lose jobs as a result of it,” Berger said. “Jobs that would have been created or currently exist at entry-level positions will probably be non-existent.”

Still, Ramon Hernandez, who owns a sub shop in Raleigh, said he already pays a starting wage of more than $6.15 an hour to attract enough workers.

“You’re not going to find anybody who can speak the language ... and work for $5.15,” Hernandez said.

The House defeated a $1-per-hour increase in June 2005, but House leaders revived it when they combined an 85-cent increase with a small business health insurance tax credit. The current bill doesn’t contain the credit, which was approved in this year’s budget.

Polls also showed that up to 80 percent of North Carolina voters wanted an increase helped raise support among legislative leaders and pro-business Democrats during an election year. State Treasurer Richard Moore also lined up in support.

More than 20 states currently have minimum wages that are higher than the federal rate of $5.15 per hour, according to the Let Justice Roll Living Wage Campaign. Florida is the only other state in the Southeast with a minimum wage higher than $5.15 an hour.

The Rev. William Barber with the state chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People called the $1-per-hour increase a first step toward a living wage for North Carolina’s low-income workers or indexing the wage. At least four states already adjust their rates annually based on inflation.

“Any great state or great nation must care about the least of the people among them,” Barber said. “This is the right thing to do.”