Around the country, the struggles of workers making wages so low that they are stuck in poverty made headlines and sparked protests. Here in North Carolina, the Justice Center’s Workers’ Rights Project helped local governments figure out what they could do to improve wages for their residents. The state legislature passed a law blocking local living-wage ordinances, but we worked with advocates in Durham, Asheville and Greensboro to develop alternatives, such as a volunteer certification program for businesses that pledge to pay living wages. We also held a webinar for community leaders, and we sent a letter to all 535 county and city managers in North Carolina, letting them know their legal options for promoting living wages and good working conditions.
In a tough legislative environment, we made several tangible gains on behalf of low-income workers. At the state level, we successfully fought off proposed changes to the state’s unemployment insurance system that would have shortened the amount of time jobless workers receive benefits. As part of this effort, we worked with state officials and provided comments to the Division of Employment Services on its rules for the revised program. We also participated in organizing a group of workers struggling with long-term unemployment and engaged them in the legislative process. At the federal level, we persuaded US Senator Kay Hagan to hold the first ever committee hearing on paid family medical leave and found sympathetic business leaders to testify before the committee.
A job and a decent place to live are out of reach for many people who have criminal records. Punitive local and state laws can make it impossible for them to create a stable life after incarceration. We provided coordination and legal expertise for the Second Chance Alliance, made up of ex-offenders and community leaders working for policies that help those who were incarcerated re-enter and reintegrate into society. In 2014, we discussed the need for more re-entry services and better policies with the Department of Public Safety and the NC Conference of District Attorneys. We helped state leaders see that helping ex-offenders rebuild their lives saves money and benefits families and communities, and we are optimistic that our continued work will result in improved policies and services in 2015.
A class-action settlement for $1.25 million benefitting hundreds of workers at a sweet potato farm in Wilson County—that was the result of just one of the cases we litigated in 2014 on behalf of workers whose employers did not pay them the wages they were due under the law. We also secured favorable settlements on behalf of landscaping workers in Guilford County and farm workers in Edgecombe County. These workers couldn’t afford an attorney, but our staff stood up for their rights when no one else would. We have several more cases underway that will affect hundreds of workers and remind employers that even people who make low wages and have few resources are protected under the law.