D.C. Panel Approves 'Living Wage' Bill

By Eric M. Weiss
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, November 23, 2005

A D.C. Council committee yesterday approved a contentious proposal to mandate that a "living wage" be paid by government and private employers who benefit from government tax breaks, incentives or other assistance.

The bill requires that employees covered by the measure be paid at least $11.75 an hour, a benefit that could extend to more than 10,000 workers next year, supporters said. The measure could go to the full council for a vote as early as next month.

The "Way to Work" legislative package, introduced by Mayor Anthony A. Williams (D) in March, has been the subject of intense lobbying by business groups on one side and labor groups on the other. In the end, the compromise worked out yesterday gave each side reason to cheer as well as grumble.

"We all gave a pound of flesh," said Barbara B. Lang, president of the D.C. Chamber of Commerce.

Labor unions and the coalition of community groups supporting the bill were pleased that the wage was raised to $11.75 from the $11.25 included in the mayor's bill and that the committee included coverage of part-time employees and those who work under Medicaid contracts.

Business groups were pleased that the committee did not include a provision requiring that 10 percent of the value of a government contract be held back until a company proved it had hired enough D.C. residents to comply with city law.

More than 130 communities across the country have adopted similar legislation, including Alexandria and Arlington, Prince George's and Montgomery counties.

Council member Carol Schwartz (R-At Large), the only member of the Government Operations Committee to vote against the bill, said that, unlike its richer neighbors, the District has a chronic unemployment problem and that mandating high base wages would lead to the creation of fewer jobs.

"As much as we would like everyone to earn $11.75 an hour, I'm worried about more unemployment," she said.

Voting in favor were Democratic council members Phil Mendelson (At Large), Jim Graham (Ward 1), Adrian M. Fenty (Ward 4) and Vincent B. Orange Sr. (Ward 5), chairman of the committee.

An amendment by Mendelson to exempt full-time students working fewer than 25 hours a week was added to the provisions. The committee also approved an amendment by Fenty to include security guards and parking attendants in the city's Displaced Workers Act. The act requires companies that receive new city contracts to employ, with exceptions, workers who were hired by the previous contract holder.

Orange opposed the amendment, saying it was unrelated to the legislation at hand and was not accompanied by a fiscal impact statement. He threatened to delay the bill if the amendment passed. Orange said he intends to carry out the threat, meaning the bill likely will not be considered at the council's next meeting Dec. 6. But council rules prevent him from delaying the bill for more than 20 days.

For months, committee members complained that Orange had tried to delay passing the Way to Work bill out of his committee. But he showed up at yesterday's markup having already included several changes requested by members, such as the increase to $11.75 requested by Graham and others.

Orange said he was not delaying but simply trying to ensure that any bills passed out of his committee would have a funding source. He said his critics were engaging in "political theater."

© 2005 The Washington Post Company