Why Pay Living Wage? Because it’s the Right Thing to Do

In Durham recently, some businesses are beginning to raise wages because they want to do well by their employees.

Voluntary living wage certification programs have gained popularity in the last few years as a way to make wage gains without calling for legislative action or government spending.

The Durham Living Wage Project (DLWP) in Durham, NC, began in early 2015 and has already certified 75 businesses and organizations. Nine of them raised wages after learning Durham’s local living wage rate from DLWP. I was curious what motivated business owners’ and managers’ decisions to do so as well as what advice they would give DLWP to encourage other employers to join the project. Almost all of them said that they joined the project mainly for moral reasons, because it was the right thing to do.

Here are a few of the responses:

“It’s a good thing to do… The noble path includes our employees.”

“We’ve always tried to have a good business. We know what it costs to live around here. So the idea that you would try to short someone and make someone’s life just on the edge just has never appealed to me. Why would you do that? If you have to do that to have a business, then in my opinion, you don’t really have a business.”

“It’s something I believe in, which is why we make the commitment and make the sacrifice as an organization. Can we do our job without raising the wages? Absolutely. Is there tremendous value for us to do this to achieve our goals? No there isn’t.  Is there value in terms of what we believe in as individuals and as an organization? Yes there is. We want folks to be able to support their families and have a good quality of life.”

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The Durham Living Wage Project has already certified 75 businesses. Any Durham business can participate. Photo Credit: Amanda Klepper.

Interestingly, when I asked what advice these entrepreneurs had for convincing businesses like theirs to join DLWP, only one, the director of a non-profit, suggested an appeal to values. The most common response was increased visibility of participating businesses:

“Peer pressure. I know a lot of small business owners because I am a small business owner. By saying, hey, have you heard about the Durham Living Wage Project? You should be a part of it.”

Another common response was that businesses should be informed of the economic benefits and low financial risk of paying a living wage:

“I don’t know if they need the resources to fully understand the benefits? Obviously staff that are better cared for work harder and therefore bring you more business and make you more money… My only advice would be to help with the perception that it’s going to somehow break the bank, because I don’t think that it is, on a small business level.”

Even though most of these business owners raised wages and joined DLWP for moral reasons, they believed that other businesses would need extrinsic motivation, like peer pressure or the promise of business benefits, to join.

Morality is undervalued as a strategy to promote living wage and other progressive labor policies.

Locally, North Carolina’s Moral Monday movement has already begun to associate progressive, anti-poverty political stances with morality and religious values. As labor scholar Stephanie Luce wrote, “This kind of vision must serve as a counterbalance to those that argue that the Republican Party or the Evangelical Christian churches have a lock on moral values.”¹

1. Luce, Stephanie. “Lessons from Living-Wage Campaigns.” Work and Occupations 32, no. 4 (2005): 424-440.

Amanda Klepper is a second-year Master’s student in City and Regional Planning. Her planning interests include bike and pedestrian planning, traffic safety, and designing streets as public spaces. She is currently researching land use-based transportation mode share modeling, but took a break to do some fun interviews with local Durham business owners.