Politics & Government

To raise pay, Charlotte has only one option: Its own employees

Fast-food workers in New York recently won a pay hike to $15 an hour, and San Francisco and Seattle are phasing in a $15 an hour minimum.

Hikes in the minimum wage are spreading across the country, but they will not be coming to Charlotte.

The General Assembly in 2013 passed a law that specifically prohibits N.C. municipalities from raising the minimum wage, or even requiring that contractors receiving government contracts pay workers a certain amount. The bill was signed by Gov. Pat McCrory.

Durham County had had a requirement since 2004 that some contractors with government business show they were paying their employees a “living wage.” The county was forced to yank that requirement in response to the legislature.

Charlotte has a 9-2 Democratic majority on City Council, so theoretically a higher wage would pick up supporters.

“But we lack the authority to impose the minimum wage,” said city attorney Bob Hagemann. “And we can’t specify what wages people pay.”

There is only one way the city can impact local wages: raising the pay of its own employees.

In City Manager Ron Carlee’s recent budget, the city raised the pay of 88 full-time employees to $27,000. Those workers – the city’s lowest-paid – mostly worked in Solid Waste Services.

That works out to $13 an hour. And it would still qualify many for taxpayer-supported housing, in which the city’s Housing Trust Fund subsidizes homes for people at 60 percent of the area median income.

That’s about $40,000 for a family of four.

City Council member John Autry is one of council’s biggest proponents of raising the pay of those at the bottom of the city pay scale.

He said Carlee was planning to implement so-called “step increases” for people in trades, such as transit workers, Solid Waste services, utilities and storm water services.

But Autry said the city lost $18 million when a business license tax was repealed, and that “made it impossible to do it.”

The city said it has 208 full-time employees earning under $30,000 a year. Raising their pay to $30,000 – about $14 an hour – would cost $467,000 a year.

By comparison, the city has set aside $1.6 million to operate the streetcar this year.

Democratic council member David Howard, who is running for mayor, said he is uncomfortable with an arbitrary number.

“It’s more of a competitive conversation (allowing the city to hire people) rather than a social conversation,” he said.

The current mayor, Dan Clodfelter, said he didn’t know whether the city should try and raise wages again.

He said he has asked city staff whether any employees earn so little to be eligible for Medicaid, which would be a sign of a pay problem, he said.

The city said that someone with a family of four could be eligible with an income below $32,250. But the federal government also takes into account home ownership and other benefits a family might receive.

James Locklear, a retired city Solid Waste services employee who lobbied the city for higher wages, said his former colleagues need more.

“You aren’t paying them nowhere near enough money. This is no easy job,” he said.

Steve Harrison: 704-358-5160, @Sharrison_Obs