The Prince George's County Council is considering legislation intended to lift hundreds and possibly thousands of working poor residents out of poverty by requiring most companies doing business with the county to pay their workers at least $10.50 an hour -- more than twice the federal minimum wage.
The so-called living wage bill, introduced by council member Thomas R. Hendershot (D-New Carrollton), is identical to a measure passed in Montgomery County last spring and similar to laws recently adopted by about 80 jurisdictions nationwide -- including Baltimore, Alexandria and the District.
"I think it sends a message that we are deeply concerned about the ability of working people in Prince George's to earn enough to sustain their families," Hendershot said. A full-time employee working at the federal minimum wage would make less than $11,000 a year, he said, characterizing the amount as "too low." "Hopefully we can set an example that the state of Maryland will follow," he said.
One barrier may be the cost of the bill at a time when county officials are bracing for possible cuts in state funding.
Although council auditors have not yet assessed the bill's likely impact on Prince George's, Montgomery's measure -- which takes effect in July and is expected to help about 2,000 workers -- is projected to cost the county about $5 million during its first year of implementation.
That figure has given Prince George's County Executive Jack B. Johnson (D) pause, aides said.
"He supports the concept [of a living wage] and will continue to support it," Johnson spokesman Walter Dozier said. "But a lot will depend on what the state is going to do."
Living wage proposals often provoke fierce opposition from business groups, which have argued that businesses will flee jurisdictions with wage controls, creating unemployment.
Such concerns led Montgomery lawmakers to kill a different bill three years ago. The law now on the books passed only after proponents agreed to exempt certain businesses and to limit the bill's scope to companies that do business with the county, as opposed to those that receive county subsidies or tax breaks. Several Prince George's lawmakers predicted that Hendershot's proposal would face far less controversy because it incorporates the compromises reached in Montgomery County.
"The heavy lifting was already done in Montgomery," said Prince George's Council Chairman Peter A. Shapiro (D-Brentwood).
Among the companies exempted under the bill are businesses with fewer than 10 employees, firms doing less than $50,000 worth of work for the county and nonprofit groups.
Companies that offer health insurance could also lower their wages accordingly. In addition, exempted companies that pay the living wage anyway will not be penalized for the resulting higher costs when bidding for county contracts.
Largely for these reasons, the county Chamber of Commerce appears favorably disposed toward the bill.
Members would like the measure to exempt employees who are elderly or disabled, and thus probably getting Social Security benefits, chamber President Wendi Williams said. And the group is withholding formal support until council auditors calculate its fiscal impact. But overall, she said: "We like this bill. We think it will enhance the quality of life in the county."
The proposal also appears likely to win the vote of most council members -- many of whom pledged to support living wage legislation during their election campaigns last fall.
This is in marked contrast to the climate when Hendershot tried to pass a related wage bill in 1999. Then-County Executive Wayne K. Curry (D) vetoed that measure -- which would have required county contractors to pay employees the prevailing industry wage for their work.
Since the November elections, Hendershot said, "We've got an almost entirely new council and a new county executive that is far more progressive when it comes to issues affecting working people."
Tom Hucker, executive director of Progressive Maryland, a coalition of churches, unions, and other local groups that worked closely with Montgomery lawmakers to pass the living wage bill, said public attitudes had also changed. "There is tremendous community support for a living wage right now," he said.
The organization, which is scheduled to hold a news conference promoting the Prince George's version after a council committee meeting on the bill today, is also hoping to push a similar measure through Maryland's General Assembly this year.