Which came first, the doughnut or the living wage? For two of Durham’s favorite bakeries, you can’t have one without the other.
Monuts Donuts and Rise Biscuits and Donuts are two of the nearly 70 local businesses that have become certified as Durham living wage employers.
The Durham Living Wage Project launched last March, with 13 nonprofits and 29 companies signed on as certified. To gain certification, a business must prove they pay employees at least $12.53 an hour. The state and federal minimum wage is currently $7.25.
Over the course of one year, an employee working full time at the living wage would garner more than $10,000 more than a full-time worker earning minimum wage, explained Mel Norton, a Durham Living Wage Project coordinator.
“It might not seem like a lot on the day-to-day, but over time that can make a huge impact on the quality of life those workers are able to afford,” Norton said.
When Monuts first launched in 2011, co-founders Lindsay Moriarty and Rob Gillespie knew they wanted to be a business that prioritized employee welfare.
“That is pretty uncommon in the restaurant industry,” Moriarty said. “But we both came at our restaurant with a more socially-minded focus.”
As part of aligning with those priorities, Monuts began paying a living wage well before the project was established. Likewise, Rise also had a policy of paying its employees above minimum wage before the project officially launched. Rise founder Tom Ferguson emphasized that the investment in paying employees a fair amount meant that they felt more connected to their jobs and their coworkers.
Although Rise franchises—like the one set to open in downtown Durham next year—are not required to follow the living wage standard, they are encouraged to. Thus far, all of the franchises have adhered to this recommendation.
Paying a living wage for restaurant workers is not common practice in the industry, Ferguson noted.
“Rob and I are thrilled to see other restaurants starting to talk about this issue,” Moriarty said. “However, at the end of the day, we are the only restaurant in Durham to actually practice what we preach by raising base wages across the board and not relying on consumer tips to get our kitchen employees to a living wage.”
For example, nationwide chain Krispy Kreme, which recently opened a location on Hillsborough Road, does not pay all workers a living wage, according to an employee.
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“Sadly, we will not see more restaurants paying a living wage to their entire staff until consumers step forward and identify good labor practices as a priority when deciding where to spend their restaurant dollars. We have seen the power consumers wield numerous times, first with diners bolstering local food and more recently with restaurant-goers identifying sustainable and healthy agricultural and sourcing practices as important to them,” Moriarty said.
She noted that she has seen a clear increase in the number of Duke students looking for sustainable and healthy food options, but few think about carrying that level of awareness over to the workers at the restaurants they visit.
Ferguson, however, says it is important that each generation of workers helps those who come next to struggle a little less, noting that he also offers his employees insurance benefits.
“It becomes really important that it isn’t as hard for the people that come behind us as it was for us. I don’t have to go out and farm the field like my grandparents did. I don’t have to work at a factory with terrible working conditions like my family did,” Ferguson said. “Why should kids behind me coming up in restaurants have to go through abusive kitchens with low pay and no insurance?”
It would be difficult to mandate that other business raise wages to a living wage level because some are more successful than others, Ferguson said. He noted that he considers it a privilege that Rise has been successful enough to be able to provide support to workers in this way.
“It is part of my responsibility to lead the change and show how this can be possible,” Ferguson said.
Although the project has grown significantly in its first year, there is still more that can be done. As new restaurants and businesses move into Durham, they have the opportunity to join the project and gain certification.
“We're proud at Monuts to support both these causes and then some by valuing our employees with living wages, paid time off and health insurance,” Moriarty said. “We eagerly await other restaurants to join us in this cause, and have made ourselves available as active members of the Durham Living Wage Certification Program to advise other restaurateurs on how to make a living wage model work.”
One of the potential impacts of the Durham Living Wage Project is that an increasing amount of employees being paid a living wage will allow them to bring more money into the community to spend at local businesses.
Currently in Durham, the most affluent 5 percent of households earn an average income that is more than 27 times higher than the poorest 20 percent of households. This leaves around one out of every five Durham residents living below the poverty level.
On Duke’s campus, the impacts of the Durham Living Wage Project have also been seen within the greater-doughnut community. University coffee and pastry favorite Joe Van Gogh raised its wage payments to meet the living wage standard in order to become a part of the project, Norton noted. But patronizing JVG isn’t the only way she said Duke students could support the Durham Living Wage Project.
“One of the things students can do is consider making living wage certified employers the center of their planning for holiday gifts,” Norton said. She highlighted the diversity of options among the certified employers to include places like boutiques Vaguely Reminiscent and Vert and Vogue.
The goal of the project is to encourage more employers to join by promoting living wage certified businesses rather than shame the ones that aren't, Norton said. As part of its work, the project often hosts “buy-cotts”—activism through purchasing power, rather than boycotting.
Norton encouraged students to follow the project on social media to monitor when new local businesses are added to the certification.
“Duke students are a significant portion of the Durham economy,” Moriarty said. “Where they spend their money matters.”