What’s the living wage — the minimum amount a single worker must earn to cover basic needs without outside help — in Buncombe County?
According to Just Economics of Western North Carolina, that number comes to $20.10 per hour in 2023. That’s up about 13.5% from the 2022 rate of $17.70 per hour, the largest one-year rise since the Asheville-based nonprofit established its Living Wage Program in 2007.
After hearing from employers, workers and other community members about the increase, Just Economics is planning a way to smooth that bump for Buncombe’s nearly 340 Living Wage Certified businesses. “In order to align with best practices of living wage certification in the U.S. and to welcome new employers on a pathway to a living wage, Just Economics is announcing a new two-tiered system of certification,” wrote Vicki Meath, the nonprofit’s executive director, in a Jan. 23 email to employers.
Under the new system, similar to that employed by the national Living Wage For Us campaign, businesses could remain in the Living Wage Program if they agreed to an $18 hourly minimum wage and “committed annual increases” toward the $20.10 rate. “We have many logistical details to work out and will continue to engage employers, workers, our committee and our board in working out the language and specifics of this change,” noted Meath.
Just Economics has traditionally set the new living wage in early January, but on Dec. 14, the nonprofit informed employers that the announcement would be delayed. “Just Economics is aware that costs and expenses have been changing rapidly in recent years for a number of reasons — the pandemic, supply chain issues, housing costs and inflation have presented unique challenges to our community,” wrote Eric Smythers, the organization’s Living Wage Program coordinator.
During a Jan. 13 virtual listening session attended by about 20 employers, Smythers explained that his nonprofit’s living wage calculation is based on housing costs. Just Economics uses a four-year running average of fair market rent for a one-bedroom apartment in the Asheville metropolitan area, as determined by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, to benchmark the wage rate.
That rent has increased from $799 in 2019 to $1,298 in 2023. Because landlords commonly require tenants to make three times their rent to qualify for their lease, Meath said, the living wage should increase in tandem with housing costs.
Employers present at the Jan. 13 Zoom meeting included firms in the retail, nonprofit, beverage, media and medical sectors. (Mountain Xpress is certified under the Living Wage Program; the company’s financial interests were represented at the meeting by Operations Manager Able Allen, who had no editorial input on this article.) Many of those who spoke said that, while they agreed with the need for wage increases, moving directly to the $20.10 hourly rate could cause difficulties for their businesses.
Several business owners said they had tried to avoid raising prices amid high inflation over the past year; higher labor costs would likely force them to make that move. Others noted that increasing wages for their lowest-paid employees would have a “ripple effect” throughout their labor force, with more senior workers also expecting better pay.
In response to questions submitted by Xpress, Meath emphasized that talks about changing the program had been underway for months and had involved “an extensive set of listening sessions, surveys, group discussions and one-on-one meetings” with multiple stakeholders.
“Oftentimes big decisions will get tabled and discussed at several meetings to make sure that we are not rushing decisions, but rather doing our due diligence to get as much information as needed to make an informed decision,” she said. “This process is democratic and does not lend to quick decisions, but we believe it is the best route to making a good decision.”
Meath said the specifics of the new program would be decided over the next month, with final decisions being made by the Just Economics board of directors. She expected applications for the program to open at the beginning of March.