Divided County Council Mulls Next Steps in Debate Over $15 Minimum Wage Bill

Members are split 5 to 4 in favor of the bill, but the minority wants to slow down process


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County Council members Marc Elrich and Nancy Navarro, left, at a minimum wage rally in Rockville Nov. 29

Andrew Metcalf

Newly-minted County Council President Roger Berliner is already confronting his first major issue as a divided council attempts to push through a bill to raise the county’s minimum wage to $15 per hour by 2020.

Berliner is one of four members—including Nancy Floreen, Sidney Katz and Craig Rice—of the nine-member council who are asking their colleagues to give council staff or an outside consultant more time to study what economic effects the bill would have on county businesses.

Meanwhile, Marc Elrich, the bill’s sponsor, has forged a majority with co-sponsors George Leventhal, Nancy Navarro, Tom Hucker and Hans Riemer to give the bill enough votes to pass the council.

However, Berliner, as council president, controls the vote scheduling. During a Health and Human Services Committee discussion of the bill Wednesday, Berliner said he would first schedule a vote on whether the county should commission a comprehensive economic analysis before scheduling a vote on the minimum wage bill.

This drew some consternation from Elrich and Leventhal—who both noted the bill already has garnered enough votes to pass. Berliner relented by saying if a majority of council members doesn’t support a study, then he will schedule a vote on the minimum wage bill as soon as January. Berliner had asked his colleagues to consider delaying a vote on the bill until the fall of 2017 to provide time for the study to occur and because a minimum wage increase is already scheduled to take place in July, but he didn’t garner much support for that idea.

The council passed incremental increases to the minimum wage in 2014 that has increased the wage to the current $10.75 and is scheduled to increase it to $11.50 by July 2017. As currently written, the new bill would continue incremental increases of the minimum wage to $12.50 in 2018, $13.75 in 2019 and $15 in 2020.

Eight of the Democratic council members, including five who are not on the health committee, debated the legislation for about three hours Wednesday, but the majority who support the bill made little headway in convincing the opponents. A ninth council member, Hans Riemer, was not present during the committee meeting.

The bill failed to be approved by the members of the three-person committee, with Leventhal voting to approve it, Rice voting no and Berliner abstaining.

The council members who support the measure, however, are angling for at least one more vote in support of the measure so it would pass on at least a 6-to-3 vote. That’s because County Executive Ike Leggett has indicated he may not support it and six votes would provide a veto-proof majority. Elrich has said he would support making tweaks to the bill—such as making the effective date later for small businesses—if it would help gain the approval of Leggett or other council members.

The bill, if passed, could raise the wages of more than 100,000 workers in Montgomery County, according to a council staff report. The legislation would not affect workers who receive tips, such as wait staff in restaurants, but how much it would cost the county remains a significant question. The fiscal impact statement for the bill notes it would cost the county $6.5 million over six years to meet  increases in the hourly wage of certain county workers and possibly as much as $20 million per year to provide wage subsidies to the approximately 30 nonprofit organizations in the county that serve adults with intellectual and other developmental disabilities—programs supported by the county.

While Katz, Floreen and Berliner all focused their opposition to the bill on the need to further study its economic impact, Rice took a different tact, saying that increasing the minimum wage may prevent young minority residents from getting jobs. Rice said employers required to pay the higher wage could seek to hire higher-skilled workers, pushing young workers out of the job market and further impacting young blacks and Latinos who already are struggling to find jobs.

“If I know people aren’t benefiting from the minimum wage because they’re unemployed, my duty is to get them employed first, then lift the wage,” Rice said.

Leventhal responded by saying there are trade-offs with the legislation, but providing people at the bottom of wage scale with higher pay would result in a bigger benefit to the county than creating more low-wage jobs.

Hucker said the responsibility to help these workers has fallen to the council because the state and federal government have failed to keep the minimum wage high enough to support the cost of living in certain areas. He noted the county currently has a 3.5 percent unemployment rate and said, “Our biggest challenge isn’t creating jobs. It’s making those jobs better.”

The council members who opposed the bill also expressed concern about raising the minimum wage while neighboring counties aren’t doing so. Council staff noted in documents prepared for the discussion that a $15 minimum wage would be about twice that of the minimum wage in Fairfax County—which is set at the federal minimum wage of $7.25; 50 percent higher than the hourly rate of Frederick and Howard counties; and about 30 percent higher than Prince George’s County by 2020 if those jurisdictions didn’t also raise their minimum wages.

Ilaya Hopkins, a spokeswoman for the Montgomery County Chamber of Commerce, urged the council Wednesday to delay action on the bill until members fully understand the impact it will have on the ability for county businesses to grow.

Business owners testified against the measure during a public hearing in July. At that time, Wendy Johnson of the home health care group Senior Helpers of Silver Spring said in order to keep her business viable she would have to increase costs for caring for elderly clients. Stacey Brown, owner of Signarama in Silver Spring, said she wouldn’t be able to hire the young employees she brings in to help operate her business and Emily Bruno, co-owner of Denizens Brewing Co. in Silver Spring, said the increase in wages could ruin the brewery’s business model and that of other small businesses in the county.

“The numbers just don’t add up for small businesses, and it’s not fair to ask us to bear the burden of a public policy experiment,” Bruno wrote in testimony submitted to the council. “This debate needs to be about doing what is right by those who have jobs and doing right by the entrepreneurs who create those jobs and take risks so we can have vibrant main streets.”

If the council approved the bill, the county would be among the first jurisdictions to do so in the country. Washington, D.C., lawmakers approved legislation  in June to increase the city’s minimum wage to $15 per hour by 2020, which followed other large jurisdictions that passed similar measures such as Seattle, San Francisco and New York state.

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