Updated: Montgomery County Council Unanimously Approves New $15 Minimum Wage Bill

Previously divided council compromised on timeline


Published:

Minimum wage advocates held a rally after the council vote to celebrate the approval of the $15 minimum wage bill

ANDREW METCALF

This story was updated at 1:45 p.m. Nov. 7.

The debate over a $15 minimum wage in Montgomery County is over.

The County Council on Tuesday voted unanimously to approve a compromise that will phase in the $15-per-hour wage over four years based on businesses’ size.

Under the compromise:

  • large businesses with more than 50 employees will be required to pay the minimum wage in 2021
  • businesses with 11 to 50 employees will have to pay the wage in 2023
  • small businesses with fewer than 11 employees will need to pay the wage in 2024.

The council also approved a measure to tie the wage to the inflation rate in 2022 to prevent the need to vote to increase the wage in the future.

The increases in the county’s current $11.50 minimum wage will continue incrementally until each class of employer hits the $15 level. After that, the wage will increase at the rate of inflation.

With the bill’s passage, Montgomery County will become the second major jurisdiction in the Washington, D.C., region to increase its local minimum wage to $15 per hour. The D.C. Council voted last year to raise its wage to the level by 2020.

Council member Marc Elrich, the lead sponsor of the bill, said that by tying the wage increase to inflation, the council will be correcting a “historic injustice.”

“We are one of the wealthiest counties in the country,” Elrich said. “We ought to get this right for Montgomery County. I think we’ve done that today.”

The vote came after more than a year of disagreement on the council and follows a veto of an earlier $15 minimum wage bill from County Executive Ike Leggett.

Leggett issued a statement shortly after the vote that he will sign the bill into law.

Leggett vetoed the first version of the bill the council passed by a 5-4 vote in January after calling for a study of the local economic impact of raising the wage. The council lacked the 6-3 majority needed to override the veto.

That version would have required large businesses with more than 25 employees to have a minimum wage of $15 per hour by 2020 and small businesses to do so by 2022.

The study commissioned by the county was later determined to have an error that overestimated local job losses. The county declined to pay for the study and the council decided not to use it when considering the latest version of the bill.

On Tuesday, there were questions about whether the bill’s initial supporters—Elrich, Hans Riemer, Tom Hucker, Nancy Navarro and George Leventhal—had found an extra vote from one of their colleagues, as needed to prevent a possible veto by Leggett.

During the debate over the bill, each of the members who voted no on the January bill switched their position; Sidney Katz, Roger Berliner, Craig Rice and Nancy Floreen all said they supported the new compromise.

Berliner said the amended bill strikes the right balance to raise wages for low-income workers while also having a minimal impact on small businesses in the county.

“To me, we have proven that while democracy is often a messy affair, it does work and this legislative process does work,” Berliner said.

The bill also classifies home health service providers and nonprofits with more than 50 employees as mid-size employers who will have to pay the $15 minimum wage by 2023.

Ginanne Italiano, president of the Greater Bethesda Chamber of Commerce, said the business organization appreciates the council’s move to create different implementation timelines for smaller businesses and nonprofits. The chamber previously opposed the $15 minimum wage efforts in the county as “too much, too soon” and warned that approving the policy would hurt the local economy’s competitiveness compared to jurisdictions that have not raised their minimum wage.

“We look forward to working with the County Council to support the future success of employers in the county and for developing ways in which to assist businesses of all sizes grow and compete in this market,” Italiano said.

Leggett said in a statement he was always concerned about how fast the $15 minimum wage should be implemented and how that timeline would affect the county’s small businesses. He said the compromise passed by the council “is close enough to the conditions I laid down for my support that I will sign the measure into law.”

More than 100 advocates cheered inside the Council chambers in Rockvillle as the council approved the bill.

Advocates hold signs in support of a $15 minimum wage during the council discussion. Credit: Andrew Metcalf

During a rally in the Council Office Building’s lobby after the vote, advocates vowed to take “Fight for $15,” as the campaign has been called, to Annapolis to try to pass a similar wage increase at the state level. Groups including the immigrant advocacy group CASA de Maryland and unions including the service workers’ UFCW Local 400 and property workers’ 32BJ SEIU promised to fight for a wage increase at the state level.

The Maryland Working Families Party commended the council in a statement after the vote.

“This bill now sets a standard for the rest of the state,” a spokesman for the organization said. “We look forward to taking the momentum of this win to Annapolis in January.”

Floreen previously encouraged the advocates to lobby state legislators during her comments about why she would support the bill.

“I hope that each and every one of you takes your energy and enthusiasm to Annapolis,” Floreen said. “We should not be in the position of having to do this county by county.”

She said she supported the bill because it arrived an appropriate compromise.

Hucker said he believed passing the minimum wage bill will help everyone from school children to older adults in the county. He said family income is the number one factor in determining a child’s success and helping parents make more money can ease families’ financial stress.

“While most residents don’t notice what we do on most days,” Hucker said, “I know with this bill, tonight from Clarksburg to Takoma, there will be workers, there will be moms and dads talking about what we did today over kitchen tables and at their worksites on the night shift, talking about the fact that we raised the minimum wage today and we gave them some hope and some dignity and some purpose and they’re going to be a lot happier tomorrow.”

Rice previously expressed concerns that raising the minimum wage significantly might prevent black and other minority youth from finding entry-level jobs. He noted that their employment rates are lower than their white counterparts. However, he said, the amendment lets the council address those concerns before the full $15-per-hour wage goes into effect.

Katz said he came around on the updated legislation in the past few days.

“We were very concerned about whether a small business could afford to stay in business,” Katz said. “I think all of my colleagues, we worked together, we never gave up. … And I think today, we ended up with legislation that will do exactly what we hoped it would do—that’s protect the people who need the additional wages—and it will protect small businesses that can afford to keep those people employed.”

Elrich said he had lengthy discussions with Berliner and Katz about earning their support, but he didn’t know the council would unanimously approve it before the vote Tuesday.

“We were trying to get to a place, where if it’s not the perfect bill, it’s a bill that moves people [to support it],” Elrich said.

He noted that despite the timeline for certain business classes, most minimum wage employees in the county will receive wages of about $14 per hour by 2021 due to annual incremental increases.

Navarro, who has long supported the policy, said the vote Tuesday will define Montgomery County.

“This is a very significant moment,” Navarro said. “I’m thrilled that this is a step forward.”

The council last approved an increase in the local minimum wage in 2013, which raised the wage incrementally until it hit $11.50 per hour in July. In 2013, the county's unemployment rate was around 5 percent and has since dropped to around 3.3 percent.

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