Advocates Plan State-Level Push for Higher Minimum Wage after Success in Montgomery County

County Executive Ike Leggett signed the $15-per-hour minimum wage bill Monday


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County Executive Ike Leggett, sitting center right, prepares to sign Montgomery County's $15 minimum wage legislation Monday in Rockville. He was joined by County Council members, advocates and others--including the bill's sponsor, Marc Elrich, sitting right, and CASA's Gustavo Torres, sitting center left. Credit: Andrew Metcalf

It was a day of celebration and congratulations for local leaders and workers’ advocates in Rockville Monday as Montgomery County Executive Ike Leggett signed the recently approved $15-per-hour minimum wage bill into law.

But the dozens of advocates on hand for the bill signing at CASA de Maryland’s Rockville offices had another target in their sights—the Maryland General Assembly in Annapolis—after pushing the County Council to approve the bill last week.

Union leaders and workers’ advocates pledged to take the Fight for $15, as the campaign for the higher minimum wage is known nationally, to the state government.

County Council member Marc Elrich, who led the efforts to establish the higher wage in the county, said he’ll continue his work on minimum wage at the state level.

“People are encouraged about how this will help them, they think, going forward in Annapolis,” Elrich said. “I think it’s important that we be a voice there.”

He also said he’d like to push Baltimore city and Prince George’s County to consider raising their minimum wages.

Under a bill the council approved last week, Montgomery County’s current $11.50 minimum wage will rise incrementally each year. It will hit $15 per hour for large businesses in 2021, mid-size businesses in 2023 and small businesses in 2024.

The current minimum wage in the state is $9.25 per hour and is scheduled to rise to $10.10 in July.

In Prince George’s County the minimum wage is $11.50, thanks to legislation passed in tandem with Montgomery County to raise its local wage in 2013. Prince George’s has no plans to raise the wage further.

The Montgomery council voted 9-0 to pass the bill after reaching a compromise to tier the effective date when businesses must pay the minimum wage based on the number of people employed at a business. A large business is classified as more than 50 employees, a mid-size business has between 11 to 50 employees and small businesses have fewer than 11 employees.

Gustavo Torres, the executive director of the immigrant and Latino advocacy group CASA de Maryland, which backed the county’s bill, said advocates for a $15 minimum wage have not yet connected with a state legislator to push for a bill during the 2018 General Assembly session. He said there are state representatives willing to introduce a bill, but he believes more groundwork needs to be done.

“We need to come with a coalition together,” Torres said Monday. “We’re going to sit down and strategize next week to see how we’re going to do it. Then boom, we’ll jump right in.”

A $15-per-hour minim wage bill was introduced during the 2017 session by Del. Jeffrey Waldstreicher (D-Kensington), but it failed in committee.

“We didn’t have the votes. That was the reality,” Torres said.

This upcoming session, he believes Montgomery County is creating momentum for the state to approve a bill.

He estimates there are enough votes in the House of Delegates to pass the bill, but he remains concerned about the Senate.

Both houses are controlled by Democrats, but the Senate, which is largely controlled by Sen. President Mike Miller, tends to be more conservative and might not have the votes to overcome a possible veto by Republican Gov. Larry Hogan, Torres said. A three-fifths vote of members of the House and Senate is required to override a governor’s veto.

Torres said earning Miller’s support is going to be key to passing the legislation at the state level. He hopes that pushing for a bill similar to Montgomery’s, with tiered effective dates based on a business’ number of employees, will make the policy more palatable in the Legislature.

“I don’t think the state is going to have any other option than to get it done statewide,” Jaime Contreras, vice president of the Washington, D.C., area service workers’ union 32BJ SEIU, said.

He pointed out that D.C., New York state and other jurisdictions have passed $15 minimum wage legislation. He said conservative Democrats in the General Assembly stand in the way of passing a similar bill in Maryland.

“We have a lot of conservative Democrats who are elected into office and make it difficult for working people to get a fair share of the American pie,” Contreras said. “We don’t expect it to be easy, but it’s a fight that we’re ready to take on.”

At the bill signing Monday, Leggett described the moment as a “big day for Montgomery County and a big day for workers.”

Leggett vetoed the initial minimum wage bill passed by a divided council in January because he wanted more time to study the effects of a higher wage on the local economy. He later came around to support the compromise bill that the council approved unanimously after the implementation timeline was extended.

“This debate was an important debate because I think it establishes the foundation for the rest of Maryland,” Leggett said. “In most debates, there are gives and takes, but at the end of day, Montgomery County has done what is right, what is appropriate and reasonable under the circumstances and conditions.”

The bill is expected to raise the wages of more than 100,000 workers in the county, officials said Monday.

After Leggett signed the bill while sitting next to Torres and Elrich, he gave the first pen to Elrich, as a memento to remember the moment.

An earlier version of this story misspelled the first name of Jaime Contreras.

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