Supporters of a proposed bill that would raise Montgomery County’s minimum wage to $11.50 an hour by 2016 say the measure is needed to provide workers with enough money to live on in one of the most expensive counties in the country.
But opponents say it would cripple some businesses, causing many to lay off workers or stop them from hiring new ones, especially young or inexperienced workers.
The Montgomery County Council heard testimony on the bill from about 40 speakers at a hearing Thursday night.
The bill, proposed by Councilman Marc Elrich (D-At Large) of Takoma Park and co-sponsored by Council President Nancy Navarro (D-Dist. 4) of Silver Spring and Councilwoman Valerie Ervin (D-Dist. 5) of Takoma Park, would increase the county’s minimum wage to $8.25 an hour on July 1, 2014, $9.75 an hour on July 1, 2015 and $11.50 an hour on July 1, 2016.
During each phase-in period, employers would be allowed to pay workers who have been on the job for less than 90 days at the previous year’s level.
Starting on July 1, 2017, the wage would be tied to a consumer price index, which tracks changes in the prices of various items in different regions of the country.
The bill would not apply to any worker who isn’t covered by the state’s minimum wage law, employees who work on tips or many young workers who receive an opportunity wage under state or federal laws.
It would also provide an incentive for employers to provide health insurance for employees by offering a credit to make up the cost of the employer’s share of the health insurance premium for each employee.
Prince George’s County and the District of Columbia are also considering raising their minimum wage to $11.50 an hour.
According to a county staff memorandum on the proposal, economists disagree on the economic impact that raising the minimum wage could have, and the county’s Finance Department wasn’t able to forecast the bill’s economic effect.
Andy Shulman, of the Bethesda-Chevy Chase Chamber of Commerce, told the council that Montgomery businesses have to compete with companies in Frederick or Howard counties as well as Virginia.
“This bill will present real challenges for county businesses,” Shulman said.
Jeff Owens of Clyde’s Restaurant Group said a wage increase would force the restaurants to raise the prices of their menu items.
“I can promise you that an $18 cheeseburger will turn customers away in large numbers,” he said.
Only about 5 percent of restaurant workers make the minimum wage, and 71 percent of them are under the age of 25, said Melvin Thompson of the Restaurant Association of Maryland.
But supporters of the bill said it would help workers afford to live in the expensive county.
Joslyn Williams of the Metropolitan Washington Council, AFL-CIO, called the bill a “positive first step to improve the lives of working families.”
He encouraged the council to add tipped workers to the groups the bill would apply to, as well as add paid sick days and get rid of the 90-day exemption for new workers.
Workers without paid sick days often have no choice but to come to work sick, exposing other workers and customers to their illness, Williams said.
Providing workers with more money to spend will also help support local businesses, said Carol Joyner of the Labor Project for Working Families, who supported the bill.
Other supporters suggested amending the bill to eliminate the 90-day period, bring tipped workers to at least a portion of the county wage and eliminate the health care credit.
A work session on the bill in the council’s Health and Human Services Committee is scheduled for Nov. 21.
Elrich said after the hearing that he’s sympathetic to some of the requested amendments, but the bill still has a while to go through the legislative process.
“Nothing’s a deal breaker for me,” he said.