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As Mecklenburg commissioners consider pay raise, over 120 county employees turn to public aid

Mecklenburg County Commissioner Vilma Leake voiced concerns last month that some county employees are receiving public assistance benefits from the Department of Social Services. She said she hopes the county is not “perpetuating poverty.”
Mecklenburg County Commissioner Vilma Leake voiced concerns last month that some county employees are receiving public assistance benefits from the Department of Social Services. She said she hopes the county is not “perpetuating poverty.”

Mecklenburg County commissioner Vilma Leake says she wants to make sure all county employees earn a living wage after learning that 123 of them receive public assistance from the Department of Social Services.

Leake, a Democrat, raised concerns about the county “perpetuating poverty” as commissioners are considering raising their own pay to compensate for more hours on the job. On top of their major responsibilities, some commissioners say they spend an extra 10 to 15 hours a week answering emails and phone messages, meeting constituents and attending ribbon-cuttings, graduations and other events.

Republican commissioner Matthew Ridenhour, who opposes raises for the board, said having employees on public assistance amid talks of a pay increase could be controversial.

“If we vote for ourselves, essentially doubling our salary, is that sending a message to our employees and community that we value Mecklenburg County employees?” he said. “How’s this really going to look, and what message are we sending to our employees in the community?”

It’s unclear what kinds of jobs are held by county employees on public aid, how many of those jobs are full-time or part-time, or what type of assistance the employees receive. To the county’s knowledge, Leake’s request was the first time officials were asked to compile that information, a spokesman said.

Still, the topic echoes national debate about low-paid workers lobbying for higher wages that start at $15 an hour, said MaryBe McMillan, secretary-treasurer of the N.C. State AFL-CIO. She said labor and worker advocacy groups will soon call on local governments to pay their workers more in Charlotte, Greensboro and Raleigh.

“There’s growing concern among folks in the country, and in North Carolina, that anything below $15 an hour really makes it difficult for workers to provide for their families,” she said.

Just because (workers) have a government job doesn’t mean they’re going to necessarily be able to meet their needs.

Aimee Wall, law professor at UNC School of Government in Chapel Hill

Mecklenburg County employs more than 5,000 people. Its highest-paid employees make upward of $200,000 a year, while others take home less than $30,000 annually. Seven North Carolina counties and cities have laws that guarantee public sector employees a living wage, according to the N.C. Budget and Tax Center, a division of the N.C. Justice Center, a left-leaning nonprofit. Mecklenburg isn’t one of them.

$12.33 Durham County lowest wage per hour

$11.51 Mecklenburg County lowest wage per hour

$11.35 Buncombe County lowest wage per hour

Buncombe County pays its workers at least $11.35 an hour, and Durham County employees earn a minimum $12.33 an hour. The lowest-paid employees in Mecklenburg County earn at least $11.51 an hour – just above the $11-an-hour living wage threshold for a single adult living here, according to the Living Wage Calculator at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. The estimate for a single parent more than doubles to $22.11.

It’s not “outside the realm of possibility” for the county to pass a living wage law, said County Manager Dena Diorio. The county’s newly formed Opportunity Task Force, which is studying Mecklenburg’s economic disparities, will likely address the topic of employees on public aid along with other issues, such as housing and education, she said. If met with a living wage recommendation, commissioners would have to vote before it could become policy.

Bob Herman-Smith, a social work professor at UNC Charlotte, said he feels Mecklenburg County pays its employees relatively well. In general, county employees on public assistance, he said, “tend to be in low-skill positions that are not going to pay a lot, anyway.”

By comparison, Forsyth County starts its employees at the federal minimum wage of $7.25 an hour. The lowest-paid Wake County employees earn $11.56 an hour.

The reasons why employees seek public benefits are varied. If they’re caring for a disabled parent or have multiple children in the household, they’re eligible, said Chris Peek, the county’s deputy manager and chief human resources officer. Personal situations also affect the living wage concept. For example, the living wage for a single adult versus a single parent will differ.

“Just because (workers) have a government job doesn’t mean they’re going to necessarily be able to meet their needs,” said Aimee Wall, a professor who specializes in social services law at the UNC School of Government in Chapel Hill.

Leake has told fellow commissioners she wants Mecklenburg County employees to earn “decent” salaries so they can care for their families.

Commissioner Ridenhour says employees are paid fairly, based on the market rate for their jobs. That includes those on public assistance, he said.

“We don’t want folks to be in that situation,” Ridenhour said. “At the same time ... we pay our own employees above the livable wage, and we can’t compensate somebody for their individual circumstances that they find themselves in.”

Board Chairman Trevor Fuller, a Democrat, said the issue is “thorny” and raises the question: “Should the county supplement someone’s salary based on their financial condition?”

“It would be a violation of the law and a violation of other employee rights to pay somebody for that reason,” said George Dunlap, the Democratic commissioner who broached the topic of board raises last month. “That, in my opinion, would be discriminatory.”

McFadden: 704-358-6045

Lowest wage paid by select N.C. counties

12.33

Durham County lowest wage per hour

11.51

Mecklenburg County lowest wage per hour

11.35

Buncombe County lowest wage per hour

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