D.C., Maryland Suburbs Working Jointly on Minimum Wage Hike

WASHINGTON —In an effort to aid the lowest-paid workers in one of the highest-cost areas of the U.S., political leaders in Washington, D.C., and its two big Maryland suburban counties are working on a joint effort to raise their minimum wages.  Two local governments took key steps on Nov. 25-26, but there are pitfalls ahead.

One is disagreement on how much the hike should be and whether to index it for inflation after the legislated increases kick in.  A second is whether to raise the wage for tipped workers.  And the third, and maybe the most important, is that – so far – the effort does not include D.C.’s Virginia suburbs across the Potomac River.

The minimum wage hike campaign in the D.C. area is yet another indication that citizens nationwide are fed up with inaction in Congress, which hasn’t raised the federal minimum wage of $7.25 hourly since the George W. Bush administration.

Earlier this year, the ruling House GOP defeated a federal minimum wage hike, to $10.50 hourly.  And some GOP-run state governments – at the behest of business lobbies and the secretive, scheming American Legislative Exchange Council – banned their cities and counties from raising local minimums.

On Nov. 25, a D.C. Council committee voted 5-0 to raise the city’s minimum wage, now $8.25 an hour, to $9.50 in July 2014, then by a dollar an hour each succeeding July.  After that, it would rise with inflation.  Tipped workers would still be stuck with a $2.77 hourly minimum, but their bosses would have to certify that each worker’s overall pay, including tips, meets or exceeds the city minimum.  There is no such requirement now.  The full council will vote on the measure on Dec. 3.

The next day, the full Montgomery County, Md., Council, voted 8-1 to raise that county’s present minimum wage from $7.25, the federal minimum, to $11.50 in three steps by 2017.  County Executive Isaiah Leggett supports the hike.

The effort to raise the area’s minimum wage, which is now the federal minimum in Maryland and Virginia and $8.25 in D.C., grew out of a failed attempt earlier this year to raise the minimum for workers in new “big box” stores in D.C. to $12.50.  If the joint effort succeeds, it would be the first minimum wage hike to cross state lines.

Unions and a coalition of low-wage workers strongly lobbied for the big box hike, which the city council approved.  But Washington Mayor Vincent Gray (D) vetoed it.  That hike was aimed at Wal-Mart, which bullied officials by saying it would cancel store openings.  The uproar forced Gray to produce a plan for an overall hike, to $10 hourly.  The mayor is cool to the $11.50 three-step hike, and his plan doesn’t include indexing.

The object is to produce an uniform minimum wage hike across the metro area, thus preventing businesses from playing one jurisdiction off against another.

Political leaders in the other big Maryland suburban county, Prince George’s, are expected to follow suit.  They were waiting for Montgomery to act first.

D.C. Council Chairman Phil Mendelson (D), who supports the $11.50 minimum wage plan, says the D.C. raise would directly affect about 7,000 workers.  Another 14,000 people in minimum wage jobs in the District live outside its borders, he added.

Mendelson also says hiking the minimum would have little impact on business.  The city’s fast-food restaurants – which employ two-thirds of the city’s minimum-wage workers – denounce and strenuously oppose raising the minimum wage at all.

“McDonald’s is not a destination restaurant to which diners will travel far.  Thus not too many minimum-wage jobs will relocate out of the District,” Mendelson wrote in a Nov. 24 opinion piece in the Washington Post.

Mayor Gray is another matter.  Anything more than $10, he wrote the council, would put D.C. “at a competitive disadvantage with Maryland and Virginia.”  Virginia, Gray claimed, is not considering a minimum wage hike.

A new coalition, D.C. Working Families, that includes Laborers Local 657, two SEIU locals and Unite Here Local 25, campaigned to raise D.C.’s tipped wage to $8.75 hourly by 2017, but the council turned that down before adding the certification.  The lawmakers also mandated tipped workers should get five paid sick days a year.

Now, employers legally must make up the difference between D.C.’s tipped minimum of $2.77 hourly and the $8.25 city minimum, but often don’t.  The federal hourly minimum for tipped workers, which hasn’t increased in 21 years, is $2.13.

D.C. Council members also say Gray’s hike is too low, even though the city’s chamber of commerce endorses it, with indexing added.  Councilman Tommy Wells (D), a mayoral hopeful next year, calls Gray’s $10 figure a missed opportunity.

Wells and two other mayoral hopefuls opposed the big box wage hike, while one favored it.  All three say they favor the $11.50 minimum.  Their prior votes drew com-ments from unionists and their allies that “we’ll remember” their positions during next year’s mayoral race.  Wells, at the same time, offered his own citywide wage hike.

-PAI