Sunday, March 09, 2014 1:55 PM
Published on: Thursday, December 05, 2013
By Holden Wilen
ROCKVILLE – It took more than four hours to come to a final decision, but the Montgomery County Council passed a bill last week to establish a countywide minimum wage.
According to the bill, which passed 8-1, the wage will be phased in over a four year period beginning on Oct. 1, 2014, when the minimum wage will rise from the federal requirement of $7.25 per hour to $8.40. The wage will increase to $9.55 per hour on Oct. 1, 2015, $10.75 per hour on Oct. 1, 2016, and $11.50 per hour on Oct. 1, 2017. The law exempts individuals under the age of 19 who work 20 hours or less in a week.
The wage applies to tipped employees by requiring an employer to pay a base equal to 50 percent of the state minimum wage with an obligation to make up any shortfall in tips up to the county minimum wage.
County Councilman Marc Elrich, the chief sponsor of the bill, said he is proud of the work the council did, and he hopes that the bill’s passage gives those on the lower end of the earnings spectrum a reason to be thankful and hopeful.
“The final bill we passed today isn’t perfect, but it is meaningful and important,” Elrich said. “Our residents will see a real and significant increase in the money they earn for their hard day’s labor. That money is most likely to be spent locally, at grocery stores, restaurants and small businesses.”
The bill’s passage did not occur before the council engaged in debate regarding how high to set the minimum wage.
Elrich originally proposed a wage increase to $12 per hour by 2016. However, in the days leading up to the council’s work session, Elrich had agreed to lower the number to $11.50.
On Nov. 25, County Executive Ike Leggett sent a memo to then-Council President Nancy Navarro, wherein he said he supports having a higher minimum wage in the county than the rest of the state, but he thought $11.50 per hour by 2016 was too high.
“We also need to keep in mind that nationally, fewer than 5 percent of workers earn at or below minimum wage and the percentage is even lower in Montgomery County,” Leggett said. “With all this in mind, I feel we must adopt an approach that will balance the needs of both our workers and our businesses that are still struggling to recover from a prolonged national recession.”
Leggett’s proposal recommended a raise to $8.40 per hour in 2014, $9.25 in 2015, $10 in 2016, and $10.75 in 2017. In 2018, he recommended going up to $11.50 or $1 higher than the state’s minimum wage, whichever is lower.
In an effort to reach a compromise, Councilman Roger Berliner proposed an amendment to put the phase-in on a three-year schedule to raise the wage to $10.75 by 2016. The amendment ended up passing 5-4.
Berliner said his proposal was not a retreat, but a “great victory” because at $10.75 per hour, Montgomery County would still have the highest wage in the country.
“This is a significant victory,” Berliner said. “…Raising the moral wage is a moral issue, but it is a moral issue in an economic context.”
Unsatisfied and determined to get to $11.50 per hour, Elrich then proposed the final amendment to the bill to raise the wage to $11.50 in 2017, which passed 6-3. Councilmembers George Leventhal, Valerie Ervin, Craig Rice, Hans Riemer, Navarro and Elrich voted in favor, while Phil Andrews, Nancy Floreen and Berliner voted against the amendment.
In the end, the final version of the bill passed 8-1, with Andrews casting the only dissenting vote.
Andrews said he supports an increase in the minimum wage at the state level, and he is disappointed the County Council rushed to pass a bill he considers flawed.
The bill, Andrews said, does not apply to employers within several municipalities in the county, and other municipalities which are covered could choose to opt out. Additionally, he said the bill may not apply to employers whose offices are outside of the county but whose employees do work in Montgomery.
“Landscaping and construction companies are among the types of companies that may be based outside of Montgomery County and have substantial numbers of employees that are likely paid the minimum wage and who do a considerable amount of work in Montgomery County,” Andrews said.
Finally, Andrews said he opposed the bill because it appears likely the Maryland General Assembly will attempt to increase the minimum wage statewide. By waiting, Andrews said, the county could have made a more informed decision. The bill as passed creates unrealistic expectations, he said, for those who already make minimum wage but deserve a pay increase and are not covered by the bill.
“All of these problems could have been avoided by the County Council without doing any harm,” Andrews said. “Instead, the Council unwisely chose to rush ahead.”
Despite Andrews’ dissent, some of the other council members expressed joy in the bill’s passage, including Navarro, who cosponsored the bill.
"Today was a great day for the working families of Montgomery County,” Navarro said. “…We showed we are ready to lead the effort in establishing a regional minimum wage."
Leggett said he looks forward to signing the bill and thinks it is appropriate for the county to have acted now.
Elrich said increasing the minimum wage in the county is a necessary move, because there is such a high cost of living for county residents.
“This issue is about people, our neighbors who work hard every day to put food on the table and keep a roof over their families’ heads. We are not only morally obligated to care about the working poor in our community, but we have a vested economic interest in doing so,” Elrich said. “Poverty and injustice begets more of the same. I am proud of the work we have done here today and applaud my colleagues for their engagement on this important issue. Our work is not done, but I hope this first step will give many something concrete to be thankful and hopeful for this holiday season.”