$17.70 for Asheville, Buncombe, says Just Economics

ASHEVILLE — The minimum amount workers can earn and afford to live in Buncombe County has increased, according to a nonprofit that calculates the local living wage.

Workers should now earn at least $17.70 an hour – or $35,450 a year – said officials from Just Economics WNC, which uses local rents to determine the pay rate. That’s over $10 more than the $7.25 federal minimum wage that hasn’t increased in 12 years.

“Our living wage rate is based on the cost of housing, and housing continues to spiral out of control,” Vicki Meath, executive director of Just Economics, said on Jan. 6.

The new living wage comes as local wages continue to lag behind the national average in a region that is the the most expensive in the state.

The salary calculation method has changed this year. Prior to 2022, workers with employer-paid health insurance could earn less per hour and still earn a living wage.

The new method means that the salary has increased by 40 cents compared to the 2021 non-insurance salary of $17.30. But for those earning the insurance-based living wage of $15.80 in 2021, the new wage represents a jump of $1.90.

The change was made because being able to pay rent, rather than having insurance, was seen as the highest priority, Meath said.

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Buncombe living wage since 2011

2011 $11.35 or $9.85 with employer-provided health insurance

2012 like in 2011

2013 $11.85 or $10.35 with employer-provided health insurance

2014 like in 2013

2015 $12.50 or $11 with employer-provided health insurance

2016 like in 2015

2017 $13 or $11.50 with employer-provided health insurance

2018 like in 2017

2019 $13.65 or $12.15 with employer-provided health insurance

2020 $15.50 or $14 with employer-provided health insurance

2021 $17.30 or $15.80 with employer-provided health insurance

2022 $17.70

Employers who pay living wages can be certified by Just Economics, which business owners often tout with a certificate posted near entrances. Under the new calculation method, those who offer health benefits will receive a special identifier in the nonprofit’s Living Wage employer guide, said Meath. The guide currently shows 306 certified employers in Buncombe and 132 in other counties.

The salary is set so that 33.3% of the salary goes to rent. This represents an increase from 30% in 2021 and previous years – another change in the calculations.

Federal fair market rent is used, which is the 40th percentile of gross rents for “standard quality units in a metropolitan area or non-metropolitan county,” according to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. That amount went from $799 in 2019 to $1,099 in 2021, dropping to $990 this year.

Economy alone uses a four-year average of FMR, which for 2019 to 2022 is $983.25.

The Biltmore Company, which includes the Biltmore Estate, starts all positions at a minimum of $15 an hour, said Chris Maslin, vice president of human resources and organizational development.

“Biltmore continually evaluates compensation in our market, to stay competitive with salaries as part of total benefits,” Maslin said.

He said the company offers benefits to improve wages, including profit sharing, 401(k) health insurance, rent and childcare supplements, and tuition reimbursement.

The company’s website included jobs such as a $15-$20 Cedric’s Tavern dining room attendant “based on volume of business and including tip” and a $15 housekeeping position. $.75.

Mission Health/HCA, another of the county’s large employers, did not respond to a request for comment. The mission listed jobs such as parent care technician and certified nursing assistant, but did not give pay rates.

The living wage is meant to be a “starting point” for pay, Meath said.

The Biltmore website advertises jobs starting at $15 per hour.

As the director of a nonprofit, she understood the pressure that labor costs can put on an organization, but said the new salary was meant to reflect “both the realities facing workers are confronted on the ground and the feasibility for companies”.

When workers earn less, it means many of those who help give the Asheville area its special character – artists, musicians and others – leave for less expensive areas.

Those who remain may be forced to live in overcrowded or substandard housing or may have no housing at all, she said.

“I think what this has to tell us as a community is that we need everyone on deck to look for solutions to more affordable housing and to really get salaries and housing in one place. more manageable and move to a prosperous salary, because it’s only a salary where someone can survive.”

Joel Burgess has lived at the WNC for over 20 years, covering politics, government and other news. He has written award-winning stories on topics ranging from gerrymandering to police use of force. Do you have any advice? Contact Burgess at jburgess@citizentimes.com, 828-713-1095 or on Twitter @AVLreporter. Please help support this kind of journalism with a subscription at the Citizen Times.

Michael A. Bynum