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A Bill of Rights for North Carolina workers

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Workers are the driving force behind economic growth, so what’s good for North Carolina’s workers is also good for North Carolina’s businesses.

Recently, attorneys and advocates of the North Carolina Justice Center’s Workers’ Rights Project asked workers across the state to imagine what laws they would enact to make North Carolina better for workers and, by extension, businesses. Their ideas form the basis of a “Workers’ Bill of Rights.”

Here are the key components of what such a Workers’ Bill of Rights would include (along with some bills from the current North Carolina General Assembly that would – if enacted – help make those components a reality):

The right to be paid for the work you do – “Wage theft” occurs when workers are underpaid or not paid at all for their work, and it happens every day in North Carolina. House Bill 826 would make it easier for workers to bring complaints when employers cheat them out of wages and would hold unscrupulous employers accountable through increased penalties. This would go a long way in curbing this crime wave.

The right to a living wage – Working full-time and year-round should be enough to keep a worker out of poverty. But a full-time minimum-wage worker in North Carolina earns about $3,000 less per year than the federal poverty threshold for a family of three. While food and energy costs continue to rise, the current minimum wage of $7.25 just isn’t enough to make ends meet. House Bill 115 and Senate Bill 220 would adjust the minimum wage based on increases in the cost of living. This would be an important first step in making sure that hard work pays off and ensuring that workers earn enough to fuel job and economic growth in their local communities.

The right to equal pay – Women in North Carolina are paid $7,000 per year less than men — simply for being women. A recent study showed women in our state are more likely than men to work in managerial and professional occupations and have higher levels of education than men but still are paid less. Isn’t it time to ensure that all North Carolina employees, women and men, are paid the same wages for the same work? House Bill 603 – the “Equal Pay Act” – would do just that.

The right to a safe workplace – Federal and state law are supposed to protect workers from serious harm on the job, but the lack of enforcement and the low fines for violations lead many employers to sacrifice safety in order to save money. House Bill 906 would improve workplace safety by requiring anyone bidding on a public construction contract to be pre-qualified based on their compliance with occupational safety and health laws.

The right to care for your health and your family without losing pay or your job – For many workers, losing a day’s pay is as easy as catching a cold. Taking a child or grandchild to a doctor’s appointment, recovering from an illness, or spending time to bond with a newborn child – these are ubiquitous life events that shouldn’t put a worker’s job or a family’s economic security at risk. All workers need earned paid sick time (as would be required by House Bill 100 and Senate Bill 536) and access to job protections under the federal Family Medical Leave Act when the need to take a longer period of leave arises (House Bill 99 and Senate Bill 535).

Lawmakers have talked about the need to bring jobs to our state. We agree. North Carolina continues to have the fifth highest unemployment rate in the country. But the fact that the General Assembly has pushed forward an anti-union constitutional amendment (House Bill 6) while ignoring the bills that echo the voices of workers is a telling signal about the way North Carolina leaders intend to market the state to prospective employers. Are cheap labor and poor working conditions really what we want to be known for?

Pro-worker bills are not anti-business bills. The bills that together form the Workers Bill of Rights would help working families while helping local businesses and the economy – by putting money into the pockets of those most likely to spend in their communities, by establishing a loyal and productive workforce, and by ensuring the economic security and dignity of all working families in North Carolina.

Clermont Fraser is a Migrant Worker Attorney and Sabine Schoenbach is a Policy Analyst. Both work at the North Carolina Justice Center [2].