A minimum wage of $15 is sensible and necessary for Montgomery County, where the high cost of living requires a minimum wage of more than $15 per hour.
Montgomery County Council members have an opportunity to ensure that county residents earn a living wage by supporting a bill sponsored by Council member Marc Elrich (D-At Large).
Montgomery County is Maryland’s most populous county and the most expensive in which to live. According to the Economic Policy Institute, in 2014 a single adult without children living in the Maryland suburbs of the District needed $41,424 just to make ends meet. That translates to $19.71 hourly. An adult raising just one child needs much more: nearly $64,407, or $30.97 per hour.
The cost of living in Montgomery County is similar to the District, which ranks among the 10 most expensive cities in the nation and which recently approved legislation that will gradually raise its minimum wage to $15 by 2020.
The holidays are here, and many Maryland workers must pick up extra shifts or a second job to make ends meet. A $15 minimum wage would bring tens of thousands of working families much closer to earning a basic-needs wage. As many as 106,800 workers in the county could benefit from an increase in the minimum wage. The majority of these workers are employed in low-wage occupations, including retail sales, food preparation, janitorial work and restaurant service, where median wages are not too different from the state’s current minimum of $8.75.
Montgomery County’s push for $15 is not unique. Since 2013, 16 states and localities have approved $15 minimum-wage rates covering employees in all or specific private-sector industries. Ten are considering doing so. Much of this is because of the success of the Fight for $15 movement, which has spread throughout the nation and scored its most significant victories this year.
While opponents claim economic catastrophe from raising the minimum wage to $15, the experience of jurisdictions that have begun phasing in a $15 minimum wage belies those claims. In the Seattle region, for example, the unemployment rate hit an eight-year low of 3.6 percent in August 2015, four months after the city executed the first of several steps toward $15. Washington state’s jobless rate, in comparison, was nearly two percentage points higher (5.3 percent) that same month. And the restaurant industry in the area, which is one of the most affected by an increase in the minimum wage, was well on its way to breaking the previous two years’ records for the number of business permits issued. A more recent analysis confirms that the $15 law in Seattle is having its intended consequence of raising pay for the city’s lowest-paid workers without significant adverse effects on employment.
Cost-benefit analyses and the most reliable research on the minimum wage have led more than 200 economists to endorse a federal proposal to raise the nation’s wage floor to $15, finding that the increase “will be an effective means of improving living standards for low-wage workers and their families and will help stabilize the economy.” And, as the past several months show, the Fight for $15 is increasingly gaining allies among various legislatures and political bodies.
The general public also enthusiastically supports boosting the wage floor. Low-wage voters are overwhelmingly supportive of a $15 minimum wage and are more likely to support candidates at all levels of government who are in favor of raising the minimum wage. Business owners, too, support raising the minimum wage, and many already pay more than what the law requires.
As the movement for higher wages gains more support from economists, legislators, business owners and the general public throughout the country, it will become imperative for Montgomery County Council members to place themselves on the right side of the issue.
The writer is director of Maryland Working Families.
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