By Bryn McCarthy

The CVS store in Lexington recently boosted employee wages to $11 an hour, up from $9. Across East Nelson Street, the new Uptown Smoothie shop is exploring insurance plans for its staff. And the Waffle House off North Lee Highway is offering monthly wage increases.

Waffle House north of Lexington offers monthly wage increases. Photo by Bryn McCarthy.

Local wages are growing, thanks to a strong national economy and record low unemployment. But experts say it will still take a while before markets like Rockbridge County reach the urban $15-an-hour wage.

Protests by fast-food workers and other low-paid employees have helped boost wages. And the movement got stronger when giant Amazon last month said it would pay $15 an hour to its U.S. workers. That’s more than double the federal minimum wage of $7.25.

Valentina Dimitrova-Grajzl, economics professor at Virginia Military Institute, said economic growth “in general leads to more spending power, which gives a boost to the local restaurants, local retail stores and tourism.”

“More economic activity goes hand in hand with higher employment,” Dimitrova-Grajzl said. “Lexington has seen an increase in new hires in the accommodation and food services industry; Rockbridge County has seen an increase in retail trade employment.”

Still, some research shows that a steep spike to $15 could put “a significant burden on small businesses,” Dimitrova-Grajzl said. “Given that the majority of businesses in our local economy are small businesses, a more gradual approach toward achieving living wages would be desirable.”

Local businesses are using wage increases and other perks to attract and retain hourly workers, especially in service jobs. Jessica Wells, Uptown Smoothies’ manager, said the store owner might offer insurance discounts to employees. Taylor Richardson, a CVS manager, said the company increased pay to $11 from $9 and reviews employees every six months for possible raises.

Cookout offers frequent raises to keep workers happy.

“It’s based on merit,” said Hannah Bickley, a cashier. “The better you do the more you get paid. If you show initiative you can get raises, but there’s also tests we take so the better we do the more chance we have of getting raises.”

One test question: how many ketchup packets do you give each customer? (Two.) And everyone needs to know “what is on each burger and hot dog,” Bickley said.

“However well workers do indicates their merit, in turn making them eligible for a promotion,” Bickley said. “I plan to keep working here, and try to move up the ladder.”

Waffle House has a tough time getting people to stay once they start work as a server or cook because “everybody comes in, realizes they have to work, and don’t wanna do it anymore,” said Tamara Nick, a server at Waffle House.

But incentives help retain workers. “If you’re a cook you can move up the line from a grill operator to a grill master and each one comes with a different pay raise,” Nick said. But she said each promotion requires more work and “showing that you know what you’re doing.”

Waffle House is open 24 hours a day, which requires even more incentives. “The night shift now makes $5  an hour instead of around $2 an hour,” Nick said.

Keeping workers happy isn’t always about money. “Everybody’s more or less like family,” Nick said, “it’s a dysfunctional family, but we’re a family.”

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