NEW HANOVER COUNTY –– Charlene Maultsby has stayed at her custodian role in New Hanover County Schools since 2015. Her paychecks have stayed, relatively, the same too.
In her six years taking out trash and scrubbing cafeterias, Maultsby’s wage has risen to around $13 an hour.
Meanwhile, the prices around her have gone up: at the grocery store, on the gas pump, in the housing market. Every month she is able to “squeeze out” about $100 to buy food for her and her daughter.
“Everything – groceries, rent, mortgage – all of that’s going up,” Maultsby said. “How do you expect to make a living?”
According to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s (MIT) living wage calculator, to make a living wage, Maultsby would need to earn $30.48 an hour to cover her and her daughter’s basic needs, plus taxes, in New Hanover County. Her grocery bill should be upward of $380 a month, or $4,670 a year.
StepUp Wilmington, a nonprofit assisting people in finding long-term employment, has used the MIT calculator as a “guide” for about two years now. It turns away businesses and companies who do not offer a livable wage to their candidates and has refocused efforts on helping more of the “underemployed,” in addition to the unemployed.
“As more people were placed in jobs, we realized that the job wasn’t solving a lot of the problems,” said Will Rikard, executive director for StepUp. “In some ways it was just creating the problems.”
An adult without a child would need to make $14.26 an hour to support himself or herself in New Hanover County, according to MIT’s calculations. Per year, food would cost $3,177, medical expenses would come in at $2,728, housing would require $8,100, and transportation bills would top $5,100.
The living wage varies county to county. In Pender County, MIT calculates the living wage to be $13.34. In Brunswick County, that number jumps to $14.18, largely due to higher housing prices and taxes.
Rikard explained when people earn too little money, it leads to “a day-to-day struggle” to survive. People earning below a living wage often struggle to afford a car or are restricted by limited public transportation. Maultsby said she settles for cab rides because taking the bus can be an hours-long process.
The other issue is housing; Maultsby lives in Section 8.
“You have people who are working who are still in need of food stamps and other things to get by,” Rikard said. “So, it doesn’t make a whole lot of sense. Besides working a full time job, they still need some form of support from the government, from taxpayers to get by.”
Countywide, half of all rental households are cost-burdened, meaning more than 30% of their income is spent on housing. Sometimes people are living with large groups, which cuts costs but strains families and tacks on other sources of stress, Rikard explained.
A first-year public school teacher earning $38,000 annually would need to find a place for less than $950 a month to avoid being cost-burdened in New Hanover County. NHCS pays its employee a minimum of $13 an hour for permanent staff and $12 per hour for part-time child nutrition helpers.
The City of Wilmington currently pays its full-time employees a minimum of $12.41 per hour. In the next city budget, which is up for a vote by council in June, staff is proposing to increase the lowest pay to $15 an hour.
Since 2017 New Hanover Regional Medical Center has upped eligible employee pay from $11.85 to $12.50 to $15 an hour as of this past March. New Hanover County implemented a policy to give government employees a minimum of $15 in 2018.
Small business owners are also feeling the pressure. Some are starting employees at $15 or offering benefits. Others are still basing their pay off the minimum wage, which hasn’t changed for close to 12 years. A house bill filed Apr. 20 in the N.C. General Assembly, and backed by New Hanover County Rep. Deb Butler, a Democrat, would raise the state minimum wage to $15 by 2023.
“For too long, probably since the 70’s, many corporations have demonstrated that they value the shareholder at the expense of the employee,” Butler said. “No one should work a full time job and not be able to provide for their family. It’s time we raise the minimum wage.”
Christopher Shane Elliott, a professor of organizations and economic sociology at UNCW, called the concept of a living wage “a message from the community to policymakers.”
“I’ve always thought of living wages just as a tool for calling attention to the fact that minimum wage doesn’t work and it hasn’t been updated,” Elliott said.
Elliott said in his studies of the craft beer industry, he sees brewers fall into debt over market volatility and other obstacles such as aluminum can shortages. Adding on the pressure to pay the progressive industry’s standard shatters more brewing career dreams.
“To put a living wage on small business owners, I think, is kind of unfair,” Elliot said. “We might also look at universal basic income. That’s another alternative movement that is trying to rectify the market’s ability to take care of people.”
Universal basic income is a political idea to give every citizen a set amount of money. The proposal was popularized as a pillar of 2020 presidential candidate Andrew Yang’s campaign.
Before Covid-19, the employment market was at its peak. Wages were rising in line. Now, as the pandemic tampers off, businesses are struggling to find job applicants.
Even StepUp is seeing fewer candidates than usual, with fewer people re-entering the job market, for reasons varying from caring for at-home children to health concerns to reaping government benefits. The organization usually works with around 30 to 50 people at a time and about 400 people a year (pre-Covid). It now has to tell employers: “You’re paying $9 to $10 an hour. There’s a reason that you can’t retain or find employees,” Rikard said.
“The more people make, the more people benefit overall,” Rikard said, “the better we are as a society.”
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