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Restaurants Look to Pay Living Wage

ASHEVILLE, N.C. -- Restaurant workers often depend on tips to make a living, but there's a growing movement to change that in Western North Carolina.

Chris Cunningham has spent 15 years in the restaurant business. He's worked in the "front of the house" -- as a server, bartender, etc. -- and the back of the house, in kitchen positions and management. In late May, he and two friends opened Blue Dream Curry House on Patton Avenue, his first restaurant. After all that time in the restaurant business, he says his approach to employee pay is part of a broader philosophy.

"I buy food from a farmer here in Asheville, we cook the food, we pay our employees with the money the locals pay," said Cunningham. "Then that money goes back out of the employees' pocket into the community here, and another business benefits from it. It's all a real symbiotic thing."

Servers and bartenders are typically paid $2.13 an hour, well below the minimum wage of $7.25. But restaurants can apply a tip credit to pay them the lesser amount, as long as their wages reach the $7.25 minimum with tips. But Cunningham says even that amount is too low.

"This is true across industries, every industry: $7.25 is not enough for people to live on," said Cunningham. "You can't pay all your bills for that. You can't work enough hours in the week to make that workable."

He is one of a growing number of restaurants--and businesses--in Western North Carolina that are paying their employees a "living wage." Non-profit agency Just Economics of Western North Carolina describes that wage as "$12.50/hour without employer provided health insurance, or $11.00/hour with health insurance provided by the employer. This amounts to $26,000/year without benefits,or $22,880/year with benefits, assuming a 40-hour work week, 52 weeks a year."

"It's our position that we will pay that difference up to $12.50 an hour out of our own pockets," said Cunningham. "Because that's what's right."

Blue Dream is being recognized for their efforts. They just received the Better Business Practice Bandwagon award from a local advocacy agency, Asheville Sustainable Restaurant Workforce. ASRW was started in part by Alia Todd, a bartender at Tupelo Honey Café, as a way of giving a voice to an industry that brought in $450 million in tourism dollars last year.

"There's a lot of people earning a living [in the restaurant industry]," said Todd. "I'm a mother of two, longtime restaurant worker, and I'm feeding my family and growing my life based on these wages so whatever job you're doing at any time ought to be paid enough where you can put food on your table."

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