Montgomery Co. officials celebrate minimum wage boost, but business chamber has concerns

Political leaders in Montgomery County, Maryland, joined with civic and labor groups to celebrate the $15 an hour minimum wage law that’s taken effect as of July 1.

The law means that as of Thursday, businesses in the county with 51 or more employees would have to pay $15 an hour; those with 11 to 50 employees would be required to pay $14 an hour; and those with 10 or fewer employees would have to pay their staff $13.50 an hour.

County Executive Marc Elrich noted that the law has been rolled out in phases, and he made it clear the $15 hourly wage is not, in his opinion, a ceiling.

“Fifteen dollars was the right wage,” he said, before adding, “It’s still not a living wage.” He told the assembled crowd, “No one should go to work and not be able to put a roof over their heads, not be able to feed their children.”

Maryland State Delegate Jheanelle Wilkins agreed, telling the crowd at the Wheaton Community Recreation Center: “Today we celebrate, and tomorrow we continue to fight.”

Montgomery County Council President Tom Hucker talked about the people most affected by the boost in the minimum wage, and why raising the hourly rate was so important. “These are the workers who just got us through the pandemic,” he said.

During the debates over raising the minimum wage, opponents often cited the idea that minimum wage jobs were never intended to support a family, but instead were stepping stones for teenagers. A number of the speakers at Thursday’s event disagreed.

Maryland State Delegate Emily Shetty told the audience the issue was personal. “When we talk about families who have to choose between food or housing or basic life expenses, that was my family,” she said.

She explained that after her parents divorced, she and her siblings were raised by their mom who struggled to make ends meet by working three minimum wage jobs. Even then, when something as basic as a hot water heater broke, the repairs had to be put off. So, she said, her family spent a summer taking jugs of water out to the yard to warm up for bathing before her mom could save up enough money for replace the hot water heater.

Montgomery County Council member Craig Rice talked about the council’s decision to enact a minimum wage boost at the local level, rather than waiting for the state to act. “It is a collective strategy that we have accomplished here in Montgomery County to make sure that no one is left behind,” he said.

Richard Madaleno, a former state senator and current chief administrative officer in Elrich’s office, said that when it was first introduced at the state and local level, a $15 minimum wage was seen as unattainable. Now, with D.C. enacting a minimum wage of $15.20 an hour, and Virginia and Maryland on schedule to move to a $15 an hour wage by 2026 and 2025, respectively, Madaleno said, “It’s no longer radical, it’s no longer fringe, it’s mainstream.”

Council member Gabe Albornoz, speaking in Spanish, said there’s a dignity in paying a wage that allows a family to pay for the basics, and that the benefits go not only to the families, but also to the entire community.

Gigi Godwin, president and CEO of the Montgomery County Chamber of Commerce, said there’s been upward pressure on the minimum wage and a lot of competition to fill jobs, but she said that having to boost the wage at this point — on the heels of the pandemic — could prove especially challenging to small- and medium-size businesses.

“This has a big impact not only on our commercial businesses, but our federal contractors who are small businesses. They’re a big part of our economy here,” she said.

While acknowledging that the legislation enabling the minimum wage hike had been introduced over a period of years since its enactment in 2018, Godwin said, “Yes it was on the books, but the pandemic was not.”

“It would have been better had our phase-in been slower or more consistent with the state phase-in,” she said.

Scott Nash, CEO of the MOM’s Organic Market grocery chain, supported the push for a $15 minimum wage. His firm, which has 1,300 employees, is headquartered in Montgomery County. Nash explained that he’s been paying the $15 hourly rate and other grocers lost employees to his business.

“We believe that a higher minimum wage makes for a better employee because it reduces stress,” he added.

“I’ll be honest, paying more money makes me more money,” he said, explaining that better employee retention means lower retraining costs, and that satisfied workers lead to satisfied customers.

“I have selfish interests. I’m a human. I know when the middle class expands, it helps me and my finances,” he said. “I don’t know why CEOs don’t get this.”

Kate Ryan

As a member of the award-winning WTOP News, Kate is focused on state and local government. Her focus has always been on how decisions made in a council chamber or state house affect your house. She's also covered breaking news, education and more.

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