Prince George’s County voted on Wednesday to join Montgomery County in dramatically raising the minimum wage, approving a measure that would increase the hourly rate to $11.50 by 2017 from the current $7.25.
The vote was part of a pact between officials from Maryland’s two most populous counties and the District, which is set to vote on a similar proposal Dec. 3. District officials were closely watching the votes in Montgomery and Prince George’s, which they said would help them to raise the city’s rate as well.
In Prince George’s, the vote was championed as a victory for social justice that will help the working poor in a county where the median household income is $71,260. But it comes as County Executive Rushern L. Baker III (D) is trying to lure businesses to the county, which lost 10,000 jobs during the recession and has struggled to generate new ones.
For years the county has had little luck luring major retailers, but recently it has recorded some successes. Earlier this month, 80 stores opened at the Tanger Outlets at National Harbor, and Baker has advocated for a casino at the waterfront resort area with entertainment, restaurants and retail.
Although Baker supports a minimum wage increase, aides said he is concerned about the impact such a large increase could have on the county’s competitiveness. Baker has said he favors leaving the matter to the Maryland General Assembly and Gov. Martin O’Malley (D) for statewide action.
“We want to make sure that (the bill) does not hamper our ability to be competitive with other counties in the state as well as other jurisdictions in the region,” said Aubrey Thagard, a top economic development aide to Baker.
National Harbor, now a growing employment hub for the county, is four miles from the Northern Virginia border, and Thagard said the county needs to make sure that a wage increase will not compromise attracting and keeping businesses there.
Baker has 10 working days to review the bill and decide whether to sign it, veto it or let it go into effect without his signature, aides said.
Under the bill, co-sponsored by all nine council members, the hourly minimum wage would increase to $8.4o in October. It would rise to $9.55 in October 2015 and $10.75 in October 2016. In October 2017, it would reach $11.50.
The increase would benefit those who work for an employer in the county, according to the legislation. It would not apply to workers who receive tips as part of their pay or to workers younger than 19 who are on the job no more than 20 hours per week.
The council voted 7 to 0 in support of the measure, with council Vice Chair Obie Patterson (D-Fort Washington) and member William A. Campos (D-Hyattsville) absent. All lawmakers said they supported the increase , calling it a “fairness issue” and necessary to help the poor.
“The bottom line is that while we do live in a region of great prosperity, we also have great pockets of poverty,” council Chair Andrea Harrison (D-Springdale) said.
During the hearing process, small-business owners and business groups opposed the measure, saying it will hurt businesses still trying to recover from the recession. They said a wage increase will cause the loss of jobs and the closure of small businesses.
But council members and worker advocates said a minimum wage increase is overdue.
“This is a victory for the working families,” said Gustavo Torres, executive director of the immigrant advocacy group CASA of Maryland, who with a group of day workers loudly cheered the decision Wednesday in the council chambers. “We want good businesses in Prince George’s; businesses that pay living wages for our families.”
Prince George’s lawmakers made some minor changes to the legislation early Wednesday to make their bill consistent with the $11.50-an-hour increase approved by Montgomery lawmakers on Tuesday. They pushed the timing of the phase-in period from three to four years out of concerns that the increases would come too fast.
Prince George’s had postponed action on the bill last week to await the outcome of Montgomery’s vote, saying it was important to move on the legislation as a region.
On Wednesday, Montgomery County Council member Valerie Ervin (D-Silver Spring) was present for the Prince George’s vote.
“The fact that Prince George’s County today made a historic vote and Montgomery County yesterday, this gives the state some impetus to move forward. What we are doing here is giving them the backbone they might need to actually pass a significant minimum wage bill,” she said.
Harrison, the bill’s chief sponsor, said she is not concerned about a possible Baker veto because there is enough council support to override it.