Organization to ask Buncombe for living-wage ordinance

Waking Life Hand Brewed Coffee & Espresso, in West Asheville, is one of 280 businesses in five WNC counties to have earned a living-wage certification from Just Economics. Hank Shell/Carolina Public Press

An Asheville-based program that certifies employers who pay a “living wage” in Western North Carolina remains the largest in the nation, organizers said.

Just Economics, a non-profit that focuses on economic policy advocacy and education, has certified 280 businesses in Buncombe, Haywood, Henderson, Madison and Transylvania counties since starting is Living Wage Employer Certification Program in 2008.

Mark Hebbard, Just Economics’s living wage certification coordinator, said the organization hopes to reach 300 or more certifications by the end of the year.

“We say that this is … the least amount you need to be able to survive,” said Vicki Meath, the organization’s executive director, “because we think there is something fundamentally wrong with the fact that people, full-time workers, still have to rely on public assistance in order to just put a roof over their head and food in their bellies.”

Just Economic recognizes Buncombe’s living wage certification standard – $11.35 an hour without benefits and $9.85 an hour with employer-provided health insurance – for all WNC counties.

The rate was last adjusted for inflation in 2011, and will be readjusted next year. Businesses can also use food, housing and transportation supplements to meet the certification standard.

Calculating a ‘living wage,’ promoting its benefits

Vicki Meath, Just Economics

The certification’s ultimate goal is to encourage and recognize employers that pay their staff the minimum amount of money a person needs to fulfill basic living needs in a given area, which advocates say is more than just the minimum wage. The statewide minimum wage is $7.25. It is the same in Buncombe County.

The organization uses the Universal Living Wage Formula to determine Buncombe’s certification rate. That formula is based on the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s fair-market rent calculation for a one-bedroom apartment. Meath said that method is appropriate for Buncombe County, where there tends to be lower wages and a higher cost of living.

Meath said that housing may not be as big of a factor in more rural counties in Western North Carolina, but Buncombe County’s status as a regional hub makes its living wage a good standard.

Hebbard, who has coordinated the program since 2010, said the program has been especially successful among smaller employers but has had difficulty with some larger employers, whose owners don’t interact with employees on a daily basis.

Mark Hebbard, Just Economics

“Where we’re seeing a disconnect is when an organization is so large that the owners or shareholders live in completely different communities, maybe they live in the same area, but their lives are completely separate,” Hebbard said.

So, Hebbard said, much of the organization’s work is focused on educating business about how the certification is mutually beneficial for employers and employees. Some of those benefits Hebbard listed include increased productivity and lower recruitment and training costs.

An employee receiving a living wage would be less likely to seek employment elsewhere and would be more motivated to retain his or her current job, Hebbard said.

Though paying a living wage has its economic benefits, Hebbard said morality is also a big motivator for employers to adopt the standard.

Jared Rutledge, the owner of Waking Life Espresso, a living wage-certified employer on Haywood Road in West Asheville, said paying a living wage was something he supported before hearing about the Just Economics program. The business currently employs three workers.

“I think its ridiculous that people skimp on that kind of stuff,” he said.

Rutledge has seen some benefits to his business since being certified.

Patrons seem to be more confident spending money at his business since receiving the certification, he said.

But he said paying a living wage is any employer’s obligation.

“If we’re not all making enough money to pay our rent … I don’t think I’d be doing my job as an employer,” Rutledge added.

Meath said that by openly supporting these businesses, Just Economics helps consumers choose businesses that are in line with their values. Some businesses display a “Living Wage Certified” sticker, and the organization lists all certified businesses on its website.

“We do a lot of work to promote that concept of voting with your dollars,” she said. “Many of us vote once a year, maybe twice a year … but we vote almost every day with our dollars, and we can vote for the type of community that we want to live in.”

Group wants Buncombe County to adopt ordinance

Just Economics is currently working to establish a living wage ordinance for Buncombe County employees, Meath said.

The ordinance would see that county employees and certain county-contracted workers are paid a living wage.

She said she hoped to take the proposal before the county commissioners sometime this summer.

If passed, Just Economics would continue to work with the county to adjust the living-wage rate for inflation.

The organization passed a similar ordinance with the city of Asheville in 2007. The city extended the ordinance in 2011 to include city-contracted workers involved in general service contracts between $30,000 and $90,000.

After determining the policy’s effect on its budget, Meath said the city chose to extend the policy again in 2012 to include contracts of up to $200,000.

Just Economics will meet with the city again in 2013 to fully implement that policy.

Learn more

Businesses that meet the Just Economics’s standard can be certified for free. Certified businesses receive a sticker to recognize their certification and are listed on the Just Economics website.

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Hank Shell is a contributing reporter and photographer with Carolina Public Press. Contact him at

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