2017 | Politics

Advocates Continue Push for $15 Minimum Wage in Montgomery County

Council members hear from dozens of supporters Tuesday urging them to pass new bill without delay

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The crowd gathered for the minimum wage public hearing Tuesday night in Rockville

Screenshot via County Cable Montgomery

A large majority of the speakers Tuesday night at a public hearing in Rockville on a bill to raise the $15 minimum wage in Montgomery County supported Council member Marc Elrich’s new version of the legislation.

Now Elrich and the bill’s other four sponsors will have to see if they can reach a compromise with one of the four council members who voted against a similar bill in January. Otherwise, they must get County Executive Ike Leggett, who vetoed the previous bill, to support the legislation.

A sixth vote would give the policy’s supporters a veto-proof majority.

Elrich said Wednesday that a council committee will review the new legislation before it comes to a full vote as soon as late October or early November.

The latest version of the bill would incrementally raise the current minimum wage of $11.50 to $15 per hour by 2020 for businesses with more than 25 employees and by 2022 for employers with 25 or fewer employees, as well as nonprofits and home health care providers.

The bill also includes a provision allowing the county executive to cancel planned increases in case of an economic downturn and would tie future increases after 2022 to the consumer price index for urban workers.

Elrich and Council members George Leventhal, Nancy Navarro, Tom Hucker and Hans Riemer voted for the initial bill, while Council members Roger Berliner, Nancy Floreen, Sidney Katz and Craig Rice voted against it.

It’s not immediately clear if the supporters have convinced one of the no votes to flip to their side and what kind of compromise, if any, would be needed to flip a vote.

“I’m working,” Elrich said. “There’s a desire to try to get to a solution.”

On Tuesday night, most of the approximately three dozen people who testified spoke in favor of the new version of the bill.

“We really feel that no one who works full time in Montgomery County should have to live in poverty,” Ginger Macomber said on behalf of the Women’s Democratic Club of Montgomery County.

Ethan Kaplan, an associate professor of economics at the University of Maryland, said peer-reviewed studies in the United States have consistently shown that incrementally raising the minimum wage at the rates proposed have not had hurt employment.

“Overall, there is little indication of job loss from the type of minimum-wage increase we’ve seen in the United States,” Kaplan said.

Local union representatives from 32BJ SEIU, UFCW Local 1994 and UFCW Local 400 all testified in favor of the current version of the bill and urged the council not to agree to a slower implementation timeline as proposed by Leggett. Those unions represent tens of thousands of retail, government, food, property service and healthcare workers in Maryland, Washington, D.C. and Virginia.

Leggett this month wrote in a memo to the council that he would like the $15 minimum wage to go into effect for businesses with more than 50 employees in 2022 and in 2024 for employers with fewer than 50 employees. He also called for a 90-day employment period in which businesses could pay new hires 85 percent of the minimum wage.

Council President Roger Berliner said Monday he believes Leggett’s memo offers a “path forward for those of us that were concerned about the impact on small businesses.”

Several supporters of Elrich’s bill urged the council Tuesday night not to include the 90-day period in the bill because they believe it could incentivize employers to only hire people for that period of time. They also said it would likely lead to lower pay for seasonal employees.

Elrich said he would compromise on defining a small business and the new hire period, but not on the implementation timeline.

“To me, the part that is unacceptable is to push it back another two years,” Elrich said.

Opposition to the bill included representatives from local chambers of commerce and industry groups.

“As we have said many times, this additional increase is too much, too fast,” Ilaya Hopkins, a spokeswoman for the Montgomery County Chamber of Commerce, said. “The increases in the local minimum wage to date, combined with numerous other local mandates ranging from mandated training, prohibitions on products, myriad taxes … have been challenging for these businesses to absorb.”

Jennifer Russel, of the Greater Bethesda Chamber, said the minimum wage should be increased at the national or state level to ensure regional competitiveness. She said local businesses are concerned they won’t be able to compete against other businesses in jurisdictions such as Northern Virginia, where the minimum wage is at the federal level of $7.25 per hour.

The Washington, D.C. Council voted last year to raise the city’s minimum wage to $15 per hour by 2020. Prince George’s County’s minimum wage is currently $11.50 per hour.

Representatives of the Restaurant Association of Maryland and the Maryland Retailers Association both said Tuesday raising the minimum wage to $15 could lead to job cuts in their industries.

Ron Zimmerman, the chairman of Zimmerman’s Ace Hardware in Burtonsville, said he can’t afford to pay his employees $15 per hour.

“It will cost us to lose our business, plain and simple,” Zimmerman said.