The Montgomery County Council voted unanimously Tuesday to require a $15-per-hour minimum wage starting in 2021, joining a small but growing national movement and signaling a revived push to try to implement the wage statewide.
Montgomery, the largest and one of the most affluent jurisdictions in Maryland, is the first in the state to require a $15 minimum, and the second jurisdiction in the D.C. region, after Washington.
Analysts say it is the only suburban jurisdiction to mandate the wage in a state that has not enacted a similar law statewide.
The battle to approve a $15-an-hour minimum lasted for well over a year, with different factions on the council and County Executive Isiah Leggett (D) clashing over how quickly to require the wage and whether doing so would hurt economic competitiveness.
An earlier bill, which would have implemented the $15 wage more quickly, passed the council 5 to 4 in January but was vetoed by Leggett. Six votes were needed to override the veto. Baltimore Mayor Catherine Pugh (D) vetoed a similar measure approved by the Baltimore City Council this year.
On Tuesday, all nine members of the all-Democratic Montgomery council approved a compromise bill under which large, midsize and small employers will adopt the new minimum wage at different stages over the next several years.
Businesses with 51 or more employees must comply by 2021. Businesses with 11 to 50 employees must pay the wage by 2023. Businesses with 10 or fewer employees have until 2024.
The minimum wage will be adjusted annually for inflation, starting in 2022.
"We're correcting this historic injustice," council member Marc Elrich (D-At Large), the bill's lead sponsor, said Tuesday before the vote. "That's what's always informed me in doing this."
Council member Sidney Katz (D-Gaithersburg-Rockville) voted against the minimum wage bill in January but said he would vote "yes" on Tuesday because he believes the time frame provides livable wages that don't exceed what businesses can absorb.
"If businesses are forced to close, people lose their jobs and we end up hurting the very people we set out to help," Katz said before the vote. "This legislation strikes a balance."
Council member Tom Hucker (D-Eastern County) presented the amendment to the bill that ultimately won the backing of the entire council. Leggett released a statement shortly after the vote saying he would sign the legislation into law.
Supporters quickly set their sights on the statehouse, vowing to push for a $15 minimum wage throughout Maryland.
"I hope that each and every one of you takes your energy and enthusiasm to Annapolis," council member Nancy Floreen (D-At Large), who voted against the minimum wage bill in January, told the crowd in the council chamber before the vote. She said she changed her stance Tuesday because the new bill gives small-business owners enough time to phase in the higher wage.
Hucker, who served in the House of Delegates from 2006 to 2014, said Montgomery has historically been a driving force in state legislative battles, from paid sick leave to smoking bans to earlier minimum wage increases.
"On issue after issue, when Montgomery County leads, the General Assembly follows," Hucker said. "If the wealthiest and most prosperous county can do this for its workers, it's going to be good for the economy and the whole state."
Only a handful of suburban jurisdictions nationwide have approved a $15 minimum hourly wage, a key issue for progressives including former Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.).
Neighboring Virginia uses the federal minimum wage of $7.25 per hour.
Former NAACP president Ben Jealous, who is running for the Democratic nomination for governor in Maryland and was an adviser to Sanders during his presidential campaign, applauded the council's vote and vowed to fight in Annapolis for a statewide $15 minimum. Gubernatorial candidate Alec Ross also tweeted his support for raising the wage statewide.
Legislation for a $15 statewide minimum has been introduced in recent years in Annapolis but has not advanced. Advocates say they were focused instead on bills including paid sick leave, which passed the legislature in April.
In the next legislative session, which begins in January, "we are all planning to throw down on" the $15-hour wage bill, said Kim Propeack, political director of CASA in Action.