Legislation to raise Montgomery County’s minimum wage to $15 an hour by 2020 passed the County Council on a 5-to-4 vote Tuesday, but it is unclear whether County Executive Isiah Leggett (D) will allow the measure to become law.
The affluent county of about 1 million would be the first jurisdiction in Maryland — and the second in the Washington area after the District — to adopt a $15 hourly minimum wage.
Leggett said last week that he was worried that the increase would put Montgomery at a competitive disadvantage in terms of attracting businesses, and that it could put too great a burden on employers.
The Montgomery legislation would go into effect by 2020 for most businesses and in 2022 for businesses with fewer than 25 employees, a change made in an effort to address Leggett’s concerns, said chief sponsor Marc Elrich (D-At Large).
But county government spokesman Patrick Lacefield said Leggett wanted to delay implementation for all businesses, not just small ones, until 2022.
Leggett will study the issue further before deciding whether to sign the bill, veto it or allow it to become law without his signature, Lacefield said. The council would need six votes to override a veto by Leggett, which is one vote more than the legislation received on Tuesday.
As the vote was tallied, the packed council chamber erupted in cheers from supporters of the “Fight for 15” campaign, which is spearheaded by organized labor and has secured laws requiring a $15 minimum wage in Seattle, California and New York, in addition to the District.
Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) pushed for a national $15 minimum wage during his unsuccessful campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination. The quest became part of the party platform and was embraced by nominee Hillary Clinton.
But efforts to approve a $15 minimum wage failed this past summer in Baltimore, and some Montgomery council members were wary of becoming the first jurisdiction in Maryland to pass such a wage hike.
Sidney Katz (D-Gaithersburg-Rockville), who voted no — along with Council President Roger Berliner (D-Potomac-Bethesda), Nancy Floreen (D-At Large) and Craig Rice (D-Upcounty) — argued that a minimum-wage hike should not take effect until Montgomery begins and completes an economic impact study that would spell out the effects that such a change would have on the county, its employers and low-wage workers.
“This is not a delay tactic,” Katz said. “We are about to put massive operational constraints on small-business owners.”
One of the business owners who attended the hearing, Boris Lander, said he would probably have to cut jobs at the 14 Dunkin’ Donuts franchises he owns in the county and shut down a production facility in Gaithersburg if the wage increase takes effect.
Lander, in a letter to the council, noted increases in the minimum wage that the council launched beginning in 2014, from $7.25 to $10.75 an hour. Another increase, to $11.50 an hour, is scheduled for July. Those hikes cost 70 to 100 full-time jobs, Landers wrote. A $15 minimum wage would mean that an additional 38 jobs would be cut and that 84 new jobs would not be filled.
Proponents of the minimum-wage increase argue that businesses adjust to rising costs all the time and publicly object only when labor costs go up.
“It’s hard to adjust to being poor, too,” Elrich said. “When you don’t have money, there’s only one adjustment — you don’t spend, you don’t buy.”
Gustavo Torres, executive director of CASA, which assists low-income immigrants, issued a statement after the vote urging Leggett to approve the bill. “It could become one of the most enduring achievements of his leadership,” the statement said. “Signing into law a $15 minimum wage will cap Ike’s legacy of putting working families in Montgomery County first.”
Council member George L. Leventhal (D-At Large), who voted in favor of the bill along with Elrich, Hans Riemer (D-At Large), Tom Hucker (D-Eastern County) and Nancy Navarro (D-Mid-County), said that 143,000 Montgomery workers make less than $13.59 an hour.
A family of four needs its breadwinner to make $22 an hour to be self-sufficient in the county, Hucker said.
Other council members said they supported the idea of a $15 minimum wage but felt that it was folly to require it in Montgomery when employers in the rest of Maryland and in Northern Virginia can pay less.
“The last time we took this up, we at least had Prince George’s County with us,” Floreen said, referring to the earlier wage hikes. “This crowd should be in Annapolis to push the state forward on these issues.”
In an attempt to avoid a veto, the council passed a series of amendments in addition to the delay for small businesses. They included allowing a delay in the wage hike if local or national economic indicators show a significant downturn, and providing a way for the county executive to ask for a delay as well.