The latest round in the continuing debate over an adequate minimum wage in the District finds employe representatives and their industry counterparts as far apart as they ever were.
At issue currently is what is an adequate minimum for retail employes.
The retail industry in the District favors a floor equal to the federal minimum of $3.35 an hour. Employe representatives haven't settled on a minimum but it's a safe bet they will push for something more than $3.35.
The District's Wage-Hour Board is required to determine periodically whether wages in nine industry sectors are sufficient to "provide adequate maintenance and to protect health" of the workers involved.
In making that determination, the board appoints a nine-member citizen advisory committee to recommend changes in a wage order. The committee considering changes in the wage order for retail workers will make its recommendation in about a month.
That committee is comprised of three representatives each from the public sector and from employer and employe groups.
The current retail wage order set in 1976 requires employers to pay workers a minimum $2.50 an hour. However, most retailers pay the federal minimum to remain competitive. Retailers who gross at least $362,500 annually are covered by the federal minimum requirement.
Although retail employes in Maryland and Virginia normally are paid the federal minimum, smaller retailers in Virginia may pay a minimum $2.65 an hour while their counterparts in Maryland may pay $2.35 an hour.
Most minimum hourly rates set by the District wage-hour board are between $3.50 and $3.90. The minimum for hotel and restaurant employes, for example, was set at $3.80 this year.
After receiving a recommendation from the ad hoc committee on retail wages, the wage board will establish a floor that it deems adequate based on what it considers a modest standard of living. A cost-of-living budget prepared by the board shows that an employed person living alone incurs about $10,000 in expenses annually.
But consideration of that standard is practically lost in the dichotomy between employer and employe representatives in the retail sector.
Retailers in the District and the city's economy will suffer a crippling blow if the minimum is set above $3.35, insist industry spokesmen. Spokesmen for employes say workers, employers and the city will lose if the floor is established at a higher level.
The retail industry in the District is "vulnerable," says Edward R. Levin, an attorney representing the Greater Washington Board of Trade. "The margins in retailing just aren't there," he added.
Retail sales in the city are "almost depressed," says Leonard Kolodny, manager of the BOT retail bureau. "Retail sales were lower last year than they ever were," Kolodny disclosed.
"The whole wage order probably shouldn't have been reviewed at this time," he said.
Reciting a position often taken by retailers, Levin insisted: "If you create a disparity in the wage cost in the District of Columbia and surrounding jurisdictions, it would mean a higher cost of doing business in the District .
"The only way you can compete is to raise your prices or reduce the work force."
Levin argues further that, "When you create a higher wage scale, the demand for labor will go down. People will come in the District looking for higher paying jobs, and D.C. residents will be competing with them."
The key in this debate over what wage rate is fair or adequate is persuading public representatives on the ad hoc committee to support the argument of retailers or employes.
"We haven't taken a position as to what level we will support," said Jim Lowthers, special assistant to the president and collective bargaining coordinator for Local 400 of the United Food and Commercial Workers Union, AFL-CIO. "But we certainly will be seeking a higher number" than $3.35 an hour, said Lowthers, one of three employe representatives on the committee.
Lowthers challenged retailers to substantiate claims that a higher minimum wage will drive them out of the District. Besides, he added, attempts will be made eventually to raise the minimums in neighboring states.
"If you have a decent minimum wage, money will be pumped back into the economy, but if you have a low minimum wage you don't have much disposable income," he said.
What's more, he said, higher minimums assure quality jobs. A lack of those jobs, Lowthers added, will result in a constant turnover and a high cost of retraining employes.
"The important thing is what it costs a person to live" he insisted.