VOICES: Health care workers urge NC lawmakers to pass $15 minimum wage

North Carolina low-wage workers, advocates, and lawmakers held a press conference on April 22 to announce the reintroduction of legislation to raise the state's hourly minimum wage, currently $7.25, to $15. State Sen. Natalie Murdock, top center, and Rep. Susan Fisher, top right, are among the primary sponsors. Cummie Davis, the author of this essay, is in the center row at right. (Image is a still from this Facebook video.)

On April 22, North Carolina lawmakers joined with Raising Wages NC — a coalition of essential workers, businesses, faith leaders and policy advocates — for a press conference to announce the reintroduction of inclusive legislation that raises the state's minimum wage from $7.25 to $15 an hour by 2023. The legislation indexes minimum wage to the cost of living, ends the sub-minimum wage for persons with disabilities and phases it out for tipped workers, and repeals exemptions for agricultural and domestic workers.

North Carolina's minimum wage has been stuck at the federal level of $7.25 an hour for nearly 12 years, while the tipped minimum wage stands at the federal level of $2.13 per hour.

Currently, 29 states and Washington, D.C., have minimum wages above $7.25 per hour, and numerous states have $15 minimum wage legislation in motion — the result of persistent grassroots organizing by low-wage workers and advocates across the country.

North Carolina workers have been demanding a $15 minimum wage for years, and other states have shown that it's possible. Workers and advocates point to a recent poll showing 75% of North Carolinians support raising the minimum wage.

Cummie Davis, a certified nursing assistant from Chapel Hill, was one of the workers who spoke at the April 22 press conference. Davis is a member of NC Raise Up, the North Carolina branch of Fight for $15 and a Union. She spoke directly to legislators about the critical need to raise minimum wage swiftly, for CNAs and all other low-wage workers.

* * *

My name is Cummie Davis. I am a member of NC Raise Up, and the Fight for $15 and a Union. I am a certified nursing assistant, and I have been in this field off and on since 1982.

Every day, I provide crucial care and companionship for elderly patients and adults with developmental disabilities. I work at an assisted living group home, and I have a second job as a home care worker. So I am working two part-time jobs to earn one full-time paycheck.

I help patients with the activities of daily living — preparing meals, administering medication, light housekeeping, and so much more. I do these things with patience, love, and respect for the people I care for. That means I go above and beyond the call of duty.

And I do it all for far less than $15 an hour. I get no health care benefits, no 401K, no paid sick days. I haven't taken a vacation in five years!

And don't forget that a CNA's job takes a huge physical toll. We have to use body mechanics to transfer patients from wheelchairs to beds, and to lift and turn patients. It's a physically demanding job, and many CNAs experience wear and tear injuries. And when we get hurt, we can't even afford to go to the doctor.

As CNAs we give our all to make sure our patients' needs are being met. But unfortunately, our needs are not being met. I'm seeing company owners' and CEOs' salaries going up yearly, but as an employee my salary is still the same. I've watched health care workers being underpaid for decades. We're getting little crumbs for the hard work that we do, even though we are officially considered essential workers.

In North Carolina, minimum wage is $7.25 an hour. This is a poverty wage.

It hurts workers like me, because it keeps salaries low for ALL of us. And CNAs' wages are especially low, considering the essential care that we provide to others.

In North Carolina, the average wage for a CNA is $10.75 an hour, according to Zip Recruiter. That comes out to about $22,000 per year. You can barely survive on this amount. And you definitely cannot build a life on it!

When you are earning these wages, you cannot pay off student loans or even pay off the certifications that you had to take to get your job. This means you cannot really build a life around a career as a CNA, even though our field is so needed in this world.

CNAs have a special talent and are well gifted in our occupations. The gift of loving and caring for others — this is something you cannot buy. I can't believe how hard it is to get a raise when everyone should know how valuable our work is.

That's why this piece of legislation is so important. We need to set North Carolina's minimum wage to $15 an hour for all workers. $15 per hour is the true minimum that people need to provide for their households.

In North Carolina, almost half of all workers make less than $15. Passing this bill will lift a lot of workers and their children above the poverty line.

I want to point out that workers who are being paid low wages are especially workers of color —  and in particular they are Black women. So raising minimum wage to $15 is one way to address the systemic racism that shows up on our paychecks. It will help close the wage gap and get us moving in the right direction.

I am speaking for CNAs and all underpaid workers across the state when I ask our legislators to hurry up and pass this bill! Workers like me have waited long enough. We need a raise right now.