Is your small business ready for the living wage movement?

Durham, NC, coffee houses are in the vanguard of small businesses committed to paying a living wage.

Durham, NC, coffee houses are in the vanguard of small businesses committed to paying a living wage.

Last Sunday, a friend and I dropped by a Durham coffee house, Cocoa Cinnamon, after attending a matinee across the street at ManBites Dog Theater. This was my first visit to Cocoa Cinnamon, but the place was on my radar because of recent news stories. The popular spot is one of a growing group of restaurants and coffee bars in the Research Triangle that have agreed to pay employees a living wage. 

If the living wage movement has not come to your corner of the country yet, it probably will soon. While the citizens in some states have voted to raise the minimum wage closer to a rate where a family could survive without receiving federal aid in the form of food stamps or other benefits, the politics in other states, including here in North Carolina, make it unlikely that voters will be allowed to voice their opinion on this important matter. So grassroots efforts like the Durham Living Wage Project are picking up the cause and making an impact.

The list of businesses in Durham that have been certified as paying a living wage includes many types of small businesses beyond restaurants and coffee bars. The Durham group is modeled after an Asheville, NC, group called Just Economics of Western North Carolina, which succeeded in passing a city ordinance in 2007 that guarantees city employees a living wage.

The benefits of a living wage to employees are obvious, but as a small business owner, you’re probably asking yourself what’s in it for you. Bill Lester, a UNC-Chapel Hill assistant professor who specializes in minimum wage and living wage research, has looked into this and found that employee turnover is reduced significantly when employees receiving a living wage, and workers who stay tend to be more educated and skilled.

For example, Lester compared the minimum wage of front-of-the house staff in the restaurant industry in the Research Triangle versus San Francisco, where employers are required to pay $15 per hour. In 2011, his research showed that turnover in the Triangle restaurant service industry was 40 percent, compared to 19 percent in San Francisco.

Employee turnover is a major expense for many small businesses and directly affects the quality of customer service and the overall efficiency of operations. Would your business be better off if you could spend less time hiring and training new employees?

From all reports, the 30+ companies and 15 nonprofits here in Durham that have decided to make a living wage part of their core values are finding that the benefits far outweigh the cost of increasing wages. As of right now more than 1,100 employees are benefitting from this commitment. Durham consumers are quickly becoming accustomed to looking for the orange logo in store windows that indicate the business is certified as paying a living wage. 

If you believe a rising tide lifts all boats, perhaps it’s time to consider how your small business could join the living wage movement.

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