In one of the most surprising legislative twists in state government this year, North Carolina became the first state to implement -- and the first red state to approve -- an increase in the minimum wage for state workers to $15 an hour, or $31,200 a year.

California, Massachusetts, New York and Pennsylvania have passed legislation that puts them on a path to reach a $15 minimum wage for state employees, but none have reached that goal yet.

The North Carolina decision is “unexpected,” says David Cooper, senior economic analyst at the Economic Policy Institute and an expert on minimum wage issues. “You don’t expect to hear about minimum wage increases happening in conservative places.”

Deepening the intrigue, the state's Republican-controlled legislature achieved this practically-overnight minimum-wage hike with no formal testimony or hearings, and with little support from Democratic legislators or the state's Democratic governor, Roy Cooper, who opposed other aspects of the budget in which it appeared.

What led to this decision? 

Momentum for wage increases had been building for several years and intensified in 2016 with a grassroots campaign by the State Employees Association of North Carolina (SEANC). As in many states, public workers’ salaries in North Carolina have lagged behind inflation since the Great Recession. The state’s lowest paid workers made $24,300. The new $15 minimum, which applies to almost all full-time state workers, will give them a 28 percent raise. 

“Working for the state of North Carolina should not be a path to poverty,” says Robert Broome, SEANC’s executive director. “We had folks who shared their stories about working second jobs to make ends meet and folks who worked for the state who qualified for assistance. We had people who had been with the state for two decades or more who were still making what I consider poverty-level wages.”

In the last several years, North Carolina state employees had received some modest increases, but more aggressive attempts at raising employee pay had failed. Earlier in this year, Broome met with administration and legislative leaders. The message he received was bleak: Little money was available for significant wage hikes. 

But in May, the pieces for the $15 minimum fell into place. 

For one, the state’s revenues came in $357 million above expectations.  Around the same time, Gov. Cooper submitted his budget proposal, which included aggressive wage increases for all state employees but no adjustment to their minimum wage. 

At 7:30 p.m. on May 23, Broome received a call from the state Senate president’s office asking if he would come to the Capitol immediately. He spent the next four-plus hours in a meeting with Senate President Pro Tempore Phil Berger, House Speaker Tim Moore and their chiefs of staff. About a week later, the legislature sent their 2019 budget with the $15 minimum and other wage increases to the governor. The budget was passed on an up-down vote with no amendments permitted. 

There was one hitch: The budget got vetoed by Cooper, who strongly supported pay raises for employees but did not agree with other budgetary decisions, including the continuing reduction of taxes on wealthy individuals and corporations.  

Holding a supermajority, the Republican legislature overrode Cooper’s veto on June 12.

Berger stresses that the $15 minimum wage doesn’t betray conservative beliefs because it doesn’t impose on the private sector.

“Wearing our hat as an employer, we felt it was the right decision for us to make. We would not require other employers to do this,” he says, adding that “good responsible employers look to their employees as assets.” 

But while North Carolina’s $15 wage only affects state employees, the Economic Policy Institute’s Cooper believes it could influence municipal and private-sector wages.

“The economy is relatively healthy," he says, "and with a tight labor market, there is already competition for employees. This is only going to ratchet up the pressure on [other] employers to start raising their wages."

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