Many Hurdles Loom For 'Living Wage'

By Bill Turque
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, February 4, 2007

In June 2000, Alexandria passed a "living wage" law, requiring some contractors doing business with the city to pay their employees a salary that keeps them out of poverty.

Richmond, Charlottesville and Arlington County followed over the next three years. More than 130 communities across the country, including the District and Montgomery and Prince George's counties, have adopted similar measures.

Despite calls from nonprofit groups, the faith community, labor leaders and a member of its Board of Supervisors, Fairfax County has stayed away from the living wage movement. Why?

The answer involves politics, different interpretations of state law and the perversities of the Dillon Rule, a 139-year-old legal doctrine that remains the basis for Virginia's strict control over local government.

Fairfax officials, citing an opinion from County Attorney David P. Bobzien, say they lack the authority to impose a living wage without approval of the General Assembly. Living wage advocates, pointing to the three other Virginia communities that went ahead on their own, say the county's stance is more a matter of political will than legal wherewithal.

"If the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors wanted to enact living wage legislation, they have the legal authority to do so," said George Farah, a Washington lawyer and general counsel for the Living Wage Campaign, a Virginia nonprofit group.

The Democrat-controlled board's insistence on Richmond's blessing has nettled labor leaders. In a nonunion state historically hostile to higher pay -- the minimum wage has been $5.15 an hour, $10,712 a year, since 1997 -- they say that not only is such legislation unlikely, merely asking for it is risky.

That's why the Virginia AFL-CIO requested last month that Fairfax withdraw House Bill 2215, its living wage bill. State President James R. Leaman said it could trigger countermeasures to strip Richmond, Alexandria, Charlottesville and Arlington of their laws and bar passage of local living wage measures. Several such attempts were undertaken by Republican lawmakers in past sessions.

"From our standpoint, it would have created a problem," Leaman said.

In April, Supervisor Catherine M. Hudgins (D-Hunter Mill), citing hourly pay rates in county janitorial contracts that averaged $6.62 to $9.86 an hour, called for the board to move toward establishing a living wage. It was "only fair," she said, that the county treat its contract workers with the same consideration as its regular employees.

Business leadership disagreed. William D. Lecos, president of the Fairfax Chamber of Commerce, countered that high-paying jobs were best achieved "through our economic vitality and not by regulatory fiat."

The board asked county officials to study the matter. Bobzien ruled three weeks later that the county could not establish a living wage without state approval. At the core of his opinion was Dillon, the doctrine named for John Forrest Dillon, chief justice of the Iowa Supreme Court, who authored the 1868 ruling that localities are limited to those powers expressly granted, or implied, by the state. Under Dillon, he said, Alexandria and Charlottesville, though a fraction of the size and population of urbanized Fairfax, enjoy somewhat more autonomy because they have been granted charters by the state.

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