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News 13 Investigates: The cost of a living wage (Part 2)

Western North Carolina has the biggest group of living wage certified businesses in the country, according to Just Economics, a local organization pushing for higher paying jobs. (Photo credit: WLOS staff)

EDITOR'S NOTE: This is the second in a four-part series.

Western North Carolina has the biggest group of living wage certified businesses in the country, according to Just Economics, a local organization pushing for higher paying jobs.

RELATED | News 13 Investigates: The cost of a living wage, part 1

But Just Economics said Asheville could do better and wants more businesses to pay more.

BUSINESSES BUDGETING HIGHER WAGES

Andy Mack has plenty of experience as a chef, but he said for years he couldn't support his family in Asheville on his salary.

"My passion is in the kitchen, but I've quit kitchen jobs to take server jobs just to actually make it with tips," said Mack.

Mack said he was also forced to travel away from his wife and kids just to make enough to get by, until he finally landed a job with Celine and Company Catering.

It's a company that's proud of its living wage certification. Owner Kim Lloyd said it shows how much she values her employees.

"An extra dollar an hour is a couple thousand dollars a year off of my bottom line, but an extra dollar an hour for someone who makes $12 an hour is huge," said Lloyd.

Which is why every employee at Celine and Company Catering, no matter the position, makes at least $13 an hour. Lloyd said, even though it hurts her bottom line, it's worth it.

"I just think you have to create a business model that allows you to pay the employees you have working with you a wage that allows them to meet all your basic needs. And you need to look at other ways to cut your expenses or increase your revenue," said Lloyd.

'IT'S EASY, IT'S RESPECT'

Every employee at Bouchon makes nearly double the minimum wage, as well.

Owner Michel Baudouin said, "I was living wage before living wage was even a conversation."

But Baudouin admitted it's a constant battle, balancing what is being paid out with what's being brought in.

"The money has got to come from somewhere, so it's part of your business plan and how you price your menu and how you negotiate your lease," said Baudouin.

News 13 called about a dozen restaurants not included on Just Economics' living wage certified list and was surprised to learn many still pay well above minimum wage. But there are still thousands of businesses in the area that said if their employees' pay goes up they will close.

Paying a living wage is a voluntary commitment that about 400 companies in the Asheville area agree to.

Just Economics updates the living wage based on current cost of living calculations. Right now, that number is $13 an hour, nearly double the minimum wage.

Vicki Meath, of Just Economics, said Asheville's list of certified businesses serves as a model for other cities.

"This is the largest program of its kind in the country," said Meath.

COMPANIES THAT CAN'T AFFORD IT

But some businesses said they simply can't pay wages that high and still bring in a profit.

George Fish, of French Fryz, said all his employees make above minimum wage, but they don't all make $13 an hour.

"Every time we slide up and think we are trying to do the good thing to help them, everything else goes up, so it's a constant battle. Where does it end," Fish asked.

He said wages that high would put the business under.

"It would definitely affect our bottom line, and I could not absorb it," said Fish.

Fish said the business does everything it can to support its people in other ways, like providing a week of paid vacation, which is unusual in the restaurant industry.

But he said if pay checks go up, the price consumers pay for burgers would, as well.

"For us to do that, we would have to have an increase in the products that we sell. And I just ran some numbers on it, and you're looking at most items going up 40 to 50 percent," said Fish.

He said it doesn't help that food and supply costs have skyrocketed recently.

But for workers struggling to stay afloat, making less than a living wage means leaving their wages in Asheville.

"It's impossible because the cost of living is higher than your average city," said Mack.

COMING UP TOMORROW NIGHT: How high is Asheville's cost of living?


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