At this week's MoCo council hearing on the bill for a $15 minimum wage, "Of the 38 testimonies, only five expressed clear opposition to the $15 minimum wage with its proposed timeline and exemptions," Helen Burns reports. "The points of contention surrounded not whether a wage-earner was entitled to a modest living, but how the livable wage could be achieved."

 /By Helen Burns/ On Tuesday, Sept. 26, Progressive Maryland activists filed into a packed hearing room at the County offices in Rockville to hear 38 supporters and opponents of Bill 28-17, Human Rights and Civil Liberties - County Minimum Wage testify before council members. PMD members stood in the back of a crowd that exceeded the room’s seating capacity, joining representatives of other progressive organizations including Takoma Park Mobilization and CASA de Maryland, as well as dozens of individuals carrying signs proclaiming support for disabled employees to earn 125% of the minimum wage. An impressive number of attendees stayed through the end of the hearing, which finished shortly after 9:30 p.m.

Like the impassioned audience, the speakers giving their testimonies -- divided into seven groups-- reflected Montgomery County’s diversity in race, age, income, and profession. Councilmember George Leventhal responded to more than one Spanish-language testimony, articulating his shared concerns with the immigrant population in a county with a continually increasing cost of living. To imply, however, that the testimonies were evenly split between support and opposition for Bill 28-17 would be inaccurate. Of the 38 testimonies, only five expressed clear opposition to the $15 minimum wage with its proposed timeline and exemptions. In fact, several of the testimonies in favor of the bill reserved more of their criticism for the concessions that have been made in the revised bill and argued that these concessions would hinder the progress towards ensuring a livable wage for full-time workers in Montgomery County.

Judging by the arguments laid out in each testimony, there was an apparent consensus in favor of reaching a livable wage across sectors, occupations, and income brackets. Absent were the talking points questioning the value of a minimum wage-earner’s labor and the innuendos that certain occupations simply are not meant to sustain an individual’s livelihood. The points of contention surrounded not whether a wage-earner was entitled to a modest living, but how the livable wage could be achieved. The strongest opponents to the bill agreed that the solution would be higher-paying job opportunities through private sector growth. Supporters of the bill with its existing concessions emphasized the importance for the bill to be passed and for visible progress to be made, while others critiqued the concessions extending the timeline and exemptions. Still others proposed tweaks to the original proposal, such as an even higher wage with an accelerated timeline and fewer exemptions.

The opponents’ testimonies honed in on their predictions of the impacts of the $15 minimum wage on the employees the bill aims to benefit. The representatives of the private sector argued that the wage increase would end up hurting the same people it intended to help. Jennifer Russell of the Bethesda Chamber of Commerce expressed preference for a more national and incremental wage increase, emphasizing that the results of such a fast and steep increase would be “unknown,” and potentially detrimental. Maddy Voytek, representing the Maryland Retailers Association, referenced job losses attributed to Seattle’s recent implementation and argued that a sharp minimum wage increase would require “more monitoring.” Representing the Restaurant Association of Maryland, Melvin Thompson argued that the minimum wage increase would “disproportionately affect the restaurant industry” and result in slowed growth, price increases, and a trend among restaurant owners to turn to automated services.

The bill drew support from attendees across socio-economic backgrounds and elicited positive responses representing a broad range of demographics, including union members, small business owners, students, and economists. A number of supporters pointed out that higher wages would result in higher business productivity and enable some businesses to save money through a lower turnover rate. An additional point was raised regarding the purchasing power of a minimum wage earner; lower income households spend a higher portion of their earnings on consumer goods, therefore cycling the funds back into the economy.  Marni von Wilpert of the Economic Policy Institute concluded that a family of four would require $82,000 annually for a modest living, and small business owner Dana Lande highlighted the importance of supply chain fair labor compliance – trying to buy from suppliers who treated workers better -- and her efforts to hold her own business to a higher standard.

Meanwhile, EPA attorney Jared Hautamaki argued from the standpoint of Montgomery County’s high cost of living, explaining the importance of wage increases to the middle class. Hautamaki described how stagnant wages required him to work four jobs and still not be able to afford children’s daycare. Eva Muiruri of CSAAC, an autism advocacy group, similarly emphasized Montgomery County’s high costs, where it is not uncommon to have a one-bedroom apartment rent for $1,600. Progressive Maryland’s own Justin Vest recounted his experience living on minimum wage and being forced to “choose which bills to pay.” Pamela Luckett of the Montgomery County Community Action Board poignantly stated that the area’s high costs have relegated households of seemingly middle-class incomes to a financial status that may still struggle to meet all needs. As the Community Action Board hears from residents impacted by the minimum wage, Luckett and the board’s calculations project a necessary hourly wage of $40 to sustain a family with children. Those with wages above $15 are still “too rich to be poor, too poor to be rich,” Luckett explains.

Some supporters of the bill argued that its current form, amended with concessions, does not go far enough to address income inequality, wage stagnation amid rising costs, and disparities among race and gender. Progressive Maryland member and Montgomery County Council At-Large candidate Brandy Brooks called for a version of the bill that eliminates exemptions based on age and types of business. Brooks argued that the sectors likely to benefit from these exemptions had a high concentration of employees who are women and people of color, and such an exemption would widen the wage gap. Brooks emphasized the need to prioritize “the crisis that is already happening” among low-income workers over what business owners perceive as “the crisis that might happen.” In a similar vein, Yannet Lathrop of the National Employment Law Project argued against the exemption for youth employees under age 19, pointing out that employers may use the exemption as a loophole to employ a disproportionate number of young employees with high turnover rates.

 Progressive Maryland and other organizations advocating for Human Rights and Civil Liberties Bill 28-17 gathered in Rockville on Tuesday to show their support - but the bill will need one more swing vote on the County Council to pass with a veto-proof majority. The hearing was one opportunity for the Council to hear the voices of minimum wage workers and their allies in support of not only a bill to raise the minimum wage to $15, but a bill that possesses the integrity and urgency necessary to make the rights of full-time employees to a livable wage a reality.

Helen Burns is an activist with Progressive Montgomery

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M.A. and Ph.d. from University of Maryland Merrill College of Journalism, would-be radical, sci-fi fan... retired to a life of keyboard radicalism...