Montgomery County Council Approves $15 Minimum Wage Bill

Montgomery County Council Approves $15 Minimum Wage Bill

Divided council passes bill by narrow margin, leaving possibility of a veto by Leggett

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Supporters of a $15 minimum wage look on as the Montgomery County Council debates legislation Tuesday

Andrew Metcalf

A raucous crowd of more than 150 supporters cheered Tuesday as the Montgomery County Council approved a bill to raise the minimum wage to $15 per hour for most employees by 2020.

Council member Marc Elrich, who championed the proposal, greeted the supporters on the steps of the Council Office Building in Rockville after the vote to join in their celebration as they chanted, “The workers, united, will never be defeated!”

But Elrich also informed them more work needs to be done.

That’s because the council approved the measure by a 5-to-4 vote, a narrow margin that gives County Executive Ike Leggett the ability to veto the legislation. The council must pass a bill by at least 6-to-3 to have a veto proof margin.

However, council members who supported the bill’s passage—George Leventhal, Nancy Navarro, Hans Riemer, Tom Hucker and Elrich—passed two amendments Tuesday to assuage concerns raised by Leggett in November.

The amendments extend the deadline to 2022 to institute the $15 minimum wage for businesses that employ less than 26 employees and add an “off-ramp” that would allow the county executive to cancel scheduled wage increases in the event of an economic downturn. A third approved amendment ties the minimum wage to the Consumer Price Index starting in July 2023 to help pace the wage with inflation.

Patrick Lacefield, a spokesman for Leggett, said Tuesday afternoon that the county executive is still reviewing the bill and hasn't decided yet whether he will approve it. Leggett has 10 days to review the bill once it's formally transmitted to his office from the council, which is expected to happen later this week, according to Lacefield.

The bill would continue the incremental annual increases in the minimum wage that the council passed unanimously in 2013. Under that legislation, the minimum wage has increased to $10.75. The wage is scheduled to rise to $11.50 by July 2017 then, under the new legislation, to $12.50 in 2018, $13.75 in 2019 and $15 in 2020.

The four council members who voted against the bill—Roger Berliner, Nancy Floreen, Craig Rice and Sidney Katz—said they would like more time to study its economic impact before agreeing to support the measure. Business leaders who oppose the bill have said the county needs to study how employee hours and jobs have been affected since wage increases went into effect in 2014.

Berliner noted during the council discussion that  communities across the nation that have agreed to raise the wage to $15 per hour are “destinations” such as Seattle, New York City, Los Angeles and Washington, D.C.

“Few suburban jurisdictions have adopted $15 per hour,” Berliner said. He added the 2013 bill already increases the wage this year, leaving the council with nearly a year to study the proposal.

Rice said he was concerned that raising the wage to $15 per hour would lead to fewer jobs for minorities in the county.

“In my community, there are people… who don’t have job opportunities,” said Rice, who represents the upcounty region that includes Germantown and Clarksburg. “Fifteen dollars per hour does nothing for them.”

The bill’s supporters dismissed the argument that more study is needed by saying economists have been unable to reach a consensus on the economic impact of raising the minimum wage—and were unlikely to do so in the next year.

Leventhal said the data provided by the federal labor department is imprecise and that he doesn’t believe better information will become available in the future.

“If you think going to $15 in 2020 is too aggressive, then what is reasonable?” Leventhal asked. “I think we’re being pragmatic… . I don’t think we’re operating with a disregard for the facts. I’m voting for those who are struggling with poverty wages.”

Labor statistics provided to the council note the Frederick-Rockville-Silver Spring metropolitan area has about 101,000 workers employed in industries that pay about or less than $15 per hour, such as health care support, food preparation and building cleaning and maintenance. The statistics don’t note how many are employed in Montgomery County, but it’s likely to be a significant portion of the 101,000.

Since the minimum wage increases began in 2014, employment in the region has risen from 561,830 in 2014 to 566,300 in 2015.

The bill’s fiscal impact on the county budget includes $6.5 million in wage increases for hourly county employees as well as much as $20 million per year to provide wage subsidies to nonprofit organizations that serve developmentally disabled adults in programs supported financially by the county.

Before the vote, Elrich dismissed the argument that raising the minimum wage would cost jobs. He said corporate behemoths such as McDonald’s can handle the increases, while hotel and service companies will still need workers to clean rooms and buildings.

“I’m not worried about a general flash through the economy,” Elrich said.

He also said that, given the upcoming Republican control of the federal government, it’s unlikely Congress will act to increase the federal minimum wage of $7.25 per hour.

Jaime Contreras, vice president of 32BJ SEIU, the service employee union that represents about 17,000 workers in the D.C. area, said the bill’s passage will provide his workers and their families with financial opportunities to improve their lives.

“It’s about time politicians do it right and do right by the people who get them elected,” Contreras said.

He added the union now plans to lobby for passage of a $15 minimum wage in Baltimore, Prince George’s County and at the state level in Annapolis.

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