North Carolina, like many other states in the Southeast, rarely takes the prize when it comes to being a trailblazer for employment laws. Instead, states such as California, New York or Oregon are the usual suspects for such distinctions. However, on July 1, 2018, North Carolina did become the first state in the nation to increase the minimum wage for most of its state employees to $15 per hour (which would equate to a minimum of $31,200, annually). New York, by contrast, does not plan to reach the $15 per hour minimum wage milestone for its state employees until 2021.
The increase more than doubles the prior minimum wage in North Carolina for state workers, as such workers only had to be paid $7.25 per hour prior to July. The pay increase stems from the Fiscal Year 2019 budget adopted on June 1, 2018, by a Republican legislature. (Roy Cooper, North Carolina’s Democratic governor, vetoed the budget because he wanted to increase state workers’ pay further than the Republicans’ budget, among other reasons. The legislature then reversed the veto.) The increase in minimum wage affects more than 8,000 state employees who were earning less than $15 per hour prior to the new minimum wage. According to the state, the most common jobs receiving the pay increase are:
- Health Care Technicians
- Administrative Assistants
- Transportation Workers
- Administrative Specialists
- Food Service Assistants
- Deputy Clerks
- Educational Development Assistants
- Security Guards
Not all state employees are pleased, though. While the new minimum wage applies to most state agency positions and workers in the University of North Carolina System, it excludes temporary workers (even if they work full-time) and does not apply to any public school or community college employee who currently makes less than $15 per hour. Accordingly, public school bus drivers, teaching assistants and custodians did not receive the wage increase. There are more than 40,000 such workers in North Carolina, and many of them do not make more than $12 per hour.
Electrical Workers (UE) Local 150 is the North Carolina Public Service Workers Union (“the Union”). The Union has been a vocal critic of the low pay for many of its members and has claimed a victory (of sorts) with the increase in minimum wage. Like Governor Cooper, the Union believes that the pay is still too low at $15 per hour. Nathanette Mayo, President of the UE Local 150, was not pleased with the legislature’s overall budget process, stating at a press conference that the Union “condemn[s] the state legislature’s lack of transparency and the fact that the people did not have the opportunity to review the budget to voice their input.” Both the State Employees Association of North Carolina, the primary lobbying group for state workers, and the NorthCarolina Association of Educators have also stated that more needs to be done to increase wages for all state employees.
The battle for higher pay among North Carolina’s state employees has been in the media spotlight for months now. More than 20,000 education workers in the state attended a rally (the “March for Students and Rally for Respect”) at the state legislative building on May 16, 2018. The teachers were lobbying for better pay and working conditions for themselves and for greater spending related to student resources. More than one-third of North Carolina’s public schools were closed due to teacher attendance at the rally in Raleigh. With the new budget, teachers will receive an average wage increase of 6.5 percent, raising the average teacher salary in North Carolina to $53,700, according to a nonpartisan analysis by the General Assembly. Principals will see an average increase of 6.9 percent under the new budget.
So, what effect might this historic minimum wage increase for most North Carolina state employees have on private sector employers? It is too soon to tell, but there certainly is a lot more discussion taking place about minimum wage in North Carolina than in past years. Many Democratic legislators are hoping that Senate Bill 210 (or House Bill 289) will be passed to increase the minimum wage to $15 per hour by 2022 for all workers in the state, including those employed in the private sector. North Carolina is among only 17 states that currently rely on the federal minimum wage rate of $7.25 for private sector employees.