As the Montgomery County Council enters the next phase in the battle to raise the minimum wage, Progressive Montgomery has been huddling up to fine-tune its own strategy in the Fight for $15. On Tuesday, a public hearing on the bill to raise the minimum wage to $15/hour will be held at the County Council in Rockville. Progressive Montgomery’s outreach efforts are set on engaging business owners, employees, and residents as a whole in a constructive dialogue that humanizes this policy. Next Tuesday’s hearing in Rockville is the place to start.
/By Helen E. Burns/ As the Montgomery County Council enters the next phase in the battle to raise the minimum wage, Progressive Montgomery has been huddling up to fine-tune its own strategy in the Fight for $15. On Tuesday, a public hearing on the bill to raise the minimum wage to $15/hour will be held at the County Council in Rockville.
As the bill’s sponsor, Marc Elrich, works towards solidifying a veto-proof majority in the Council, his allies address critics’ concerns on the impact on small businesses and commodity prices. Progressive Montgomery, meanwhile, is stepping up its community outreach on the issue as we connect with Montgomery County residents over what is at stake for those who find themselves piecing together a living on minimum wage.
Over the summer, County Executive Isiah Leggett issued a response to the County Council via Council President Roger Berliner (who has also opposed the bill), suggesting a revised timeline. Large employers, which the bill defines as over 50 employees, would implement the wage raise to $15 by 2022, while small employers, defined as under 50 employees, would have until 2024 to implement the raise. The revised bill also contains exemptions for younger employees. Critics, as noted in Seventh State, call out Leggett’s “delay tactics,” saying the County Executive is “looking for excuses.” However, after having vetoed the original bill based on the highly flawed study he commissioned, Leggett has acknowledged that the recent study may have had skewed figures in its results.
Elrich, meanwhile, has explained that the bill currently under consideration is already a compromise. In an interview, Elrich noted that the minimum wage “in a place as wealthy as Montgomery County should be closer to $17.” The bill, Elrich explains, would further incrementally increase the wage according to the consumer index. In a recent debate in Bethesda with opponent Roger Berliner, Elrich denounced the notion of the minimum wage as a “starter wage,” a common argument among opponents of the bill who perceive minimum wage jobs as a temporary stepping stone to a long-term career.
“Where is the minimum wage housing? Where are the minimum wage grocery stores?” Elrich challenges, while elucidating the “cycle of bad choices” beleaguering career-seekers who aim to balance health, housing, and family costs on an unsustainable income.
This brings us to the subject matter of Progressive Montgomery’s community meeting held in Takoma Park earlier this month. A small, but energetic group of PM members and neighbors gathered to brainstorm a two-pronged approach to garner popular support for the minimum wage bill. The first approach would be to gather testimonies that show the effects of the minimum wage across demographics. The second is to educate the community about the real benefits of the minimum wage, countering the snap judgments that abound among skeptics.
At the community meeting, we found that we need not look further than a single degree of separation for testimony of the impacts of an unsustainable wage. One progressive ally described the situation of a relative that exemplifies Elrich’s depiction of the “cycle of bad choices.” The relative lost her job as a respiratory therapist after having fallen in with the “wrong crowd” that led her to opioid abuse. Now, she balances two minimum-wage jobs, raising two children, which leaves little time for career advancement already obstructed by “a cycle of depression that keeps pushing her back to the drug,” as the testimony pointed out.
A recent immigrant in Takoma Park, who wishes to remain anonymous, works a minimum wage job while contending with student loan debt. At age 32, she debates whether to find a roommate or to get married - for the financial benefit.
I also offered my own experience, as someone who otherwise blends into her middle-class, left-leaning surroundings. When I had just finished my Master’s degree in a competitive field, I worked 12-hour days at two minimum-wage jobs with six-figure student loan debt for about a year until the all-too-familiar, DC-area networking scramble finally panned out and led to more gainful employment. While I came with the mentality that my situation would be temporary, the experience offered a glimpse into the reality facing those for whom the situation is not so temporary. As the testimonies shared at the meeting reveal, more of those around us than we realize face the decisions between being late on rent versus racking up credit card debt, affording to feed yourself by working a second job versus investing that time into trying to further your career, or getting your children safely to school versus paying your medical bills.
Our calculations based on the current minimum wage of $11.50 per hour show that if someone working a 40-hour week were to try and limit their rent burden to the recommended 30% of monthly income, he or she would have to find housing for under $600 per month. To illustrate how expensive Montgomery County can get, a cost-of-living estimate found on the website Numbeo projects that a single person in Silver Spring would spend just over $100 per week to feed themselves. While many of us at the meeting agreed that this estimate skewed high, it dwarfs the USDA’s low-income food cost estimate of around $40 per week for a single person.
These testimonies and calculations serve as the basis of our outreach moving forward. Our challenge, however, is packing these truths into a single punch that can, in our sound-bite driven environment, counter the strawman arguments about “$15 burger-flippers driving our small businesses out of town.” To begin, we’ve been able to start the dialogue at local businesses in progressive-leaning areas. With employees and patrons on our side, we now aim to now bridge the information gap to reach employers. The key step is facilitating the dialogue. While pro-labor arguments are often won on nuances, such as pointing out the flaws in the Philadelphia-based study and laying out the reasons why a local business is not actually likely to pack up and move across the Potomac into Virginia, Progressive Montgomery’s outreach efforts are set on engaging business owners, employees, and residents as a whole in a constructive dialogue that humanizes this policy. Next Tuesday’s hearing in Rockville is the place to start.
Helen Burns is a Progressive Montgomery activist