The D.C. Council unanimously endorsed an $11.50-an-hour minimum wage for the nation’s capital Tuesday, completing a rare act of regional cooperation with the Maryland suburbs and setting up a stark contrast with the $7.25 federal minimum wage.
By coordinating with lawmakers in Montgomery and Prince George’s counties, which approved similar measures last month, the council put the three localities on the cusp of creating a contiguous region with 2.5 million residents and a minimum wage higher than any of the 50 states. Virginia requires employers to pay the federal rate.
The D.C. Council must hold a final vote on the rate-increase measure and send it to Mayor Vincent C. Gray (D), probably early next year. But with all 13 council members pledging their support, the final vote appeared to be a formality and likely wide enough to override a veto by Gray, who repeated Tuesday that he would prefer a smaller increase — to $10 an hour.
After Gray announced Monday that he would seek a second term, the high-profile minimum-wage vote set the stage for a day of intense political theater in and around the council chambers on Pennsylvania Avenue.
The votes needed to pass the measure had been a foregone conclusion for days, but with four council members running for mayor and five more seeking reelection to the council next year, the suspense rested on who would claim credit.
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The council’s appetite for a minimum-wage increase was whetted this fall when the mayor vetoed a bill that would have required Wal-Mart and other large retailers with District stores to pay a 50 percent premium over the city’s current minimum wage of $8.25.
Council member Tommy Wells (D-Ward 6), a mayoral candidate who has been working to burnish his credentials with business leaders, cast a decisive no-vote against the Wal-Mart bill in September. He said at the time that it would create an unfair playing field for companies and help only low-paid Wal-Mart workers. Wells was among the first to introduce legislation for a minimum-wage increase, and his bill for $10.25 — though not the one that ultimately passed — was the first to attract a majority of the council’s support.
“I had the leadership to get nine votes. . . . I led the first bill to show I could get this done,” Wells told reporters outside the council chamber Monday morning. “I promised I’d get this done, and I’m getting it done today.”
Council member Vincent B. Orange (D-At Large), another candidate for mayor, leads the committee that worked out a compromise among what became four bills to raise the minimum wage, including his own to set a top rate of $12.50 per hour. Orange used his own bill as the vehicle for the final vote.
“This is legislation introduced by me,” Orange said from the dais, adding that unlike Gray’s vote against the Wal-Mart bill in the fall, his ability to forge agreement amounted to a first step toward “not leaving people behind” in the wave of economic development and prosperity sweeping the city.
Before the vote, D.C. Council member Muriel Bowser (D-Ward 4) congratulated a group of union workers and advocates for the poor from the steps of the John A. Wilson Building. But Bowser, who voted against the “living-wage” bill that applied only to large retailers, was heckled by a supporter of that bill.
The Rev. Graylan Hagler, senior minister of Plymouth Congregational United Church of Christ in Northeast and a longtime supporter of Gray’s who publicly split with the mayor over his Wal-Mart vote, said he was not surprised to see a unanimous vote.
“They are all running, and this is an attempt to make things square. . . . They realized where the numbers are,” Hagler said. “Voters are right now really sensitive if you’re always kowtowing to business interests and don’t seem to have the same level of concern for those of us who live in the neighborhood — it’s reprehensible.”
Prince George’s and Montgomery counties passed similar measures last week, raising the minimum in four increments by 2017.
The D.C. measure would go two steps further: It would ramp up the city’s wage to $11.50 a year earlier, in 2016. After that, it would be indexed to inflation.
The bill would give it one of the highest minimum wages of any major U.S. city.
The council also voted unanimously to back a related measure Tuesday: requiring employers to give tipped workers five days of accrued sick time. The measure closes a loophole in city employment law that advocates said had left workers susceptible to being fired for calling in sick a single time. Council members said the paid sick days would not only protect workers but also keep patrons of restaurants from eating food handled by sick employees.