Workers and activists gathered in Rockville Tuesday night to press for an increase in the minimum wage to $15 per hour, joining the ranks of groups around the country that did the same.
But unlike in many other jurisdictions, supporters here can see a clear path to the $15 mark thanks to a county council bill that will be up for deliberation over the next two months.
The approximately 50 activists, union members and workers who gathered outside the County Council Office Building in Rockville made it clear they were supporting the bill and would fight for its passage.
“We all know a minimum wage won’t cut it in Montgomery County,” said Dante Bishop, a leader of the workers’ advocacy group Maryland Working Families. “Montgomery County needs a living wage.”
The county’s current minimum wage is $10.75 per hour.
Simona Assenova, a graduate student who works at a Starbucks in Silver Spring, said she sometimes takes expired food items home from work to help make ends meet.
“The money we would get in an increase in wages would go to essentials,” Assenova said.
Simona Assenova speaks during the rally Tuesday evening. Credit: Andrew Metcalf
Rosario Reyes, a county resident who said she is paid minimum wage, explained that she couldn’t afford to have a birthday party for her 8-year-old son while also paying for food, rent and other living expenses. She said her landlord recently raised her rent by $100 per month—and she’s worried she may become homeless.
“We don’t have enough to live in this county,” Reyes said.
Montgomery County Council members Marc Elrich, George Leventhal and Nancy Navarro pledged their support to raise the minimum wage at the event.
Elrich is the sponsor of a bill that would raise the county’s minimum wage to $15 per hour by 2020. That bill has been cosponsored by Leventhal, Navarro and council members Hans Riemer and Tom Hucker, giving it a pathway to passage on the nine-member council.
Leventhal said the Health and Human Services Committee, which he chairs, will consider the bill Dec. 7. He noted that the other two members of the committee—Roger Berliner and Craig Rice—have not cosponsored the bill. He urged the attendees at the rally to lobby Berliner and Rice to support the legislation.
“Employees can absorb this, our economy will not be weakened by this,” Leventhal said. “It will be strengthened because higher wages mean more consumer spending so retailers earn more and profits increase.”
Elrich’s bill would piggyback on a 2014 law that incrementally raises the minimum wage to $11.50 by July 2017. The bill would continue those incremental increases to $12.50 in 2018, $13.75 in 2019 and $15 in 2020.
Similar changes are already being supported in the region—the Washington, D.C. council approved legislation in June to incrementally raise wages to $15 per hour by 2020 and Baltimore activists relaunched an effort Tuesday to pass a $15 minimum wage in the city.
There are criticisms of the Montgomery County bill, however. County Executive Ike Leggett last week expressed concern the measure would put the county at a competitive disadvantage compared to neighboring jurisdictions that don’t have a $15 minimum wage. Leggett asked that the council consider giving the county executive the authority to cancel the increases in case of an economic downturn and that the council consider stretching out the timeframe for small businesses.
Elrich said Tuesday he wouldn’t have a problem with tweaking the bill if it would mean earning Leggett’s support.
State Sen. Rich Madaleno (D-Kensington) said at the event Tuesday he plans to fight for a statewide $15 minimum wage. He acknowledged there may be resistance from lawmakers in other parts of the state, particularly those where the cost-of-living is much cheaper than in Montgomery County, but said it’s a worthy effort.
“I think one of the reasons why so many people are disappointed in the economy right now is they’re working hard and they can’t support their families,” Madaleno said. “That’s true in Montgomery County as much as it’s true in Cumberland, Salisbury and Baltimore city. So yes, I think the time is ripe to have this conversation. That’s the message from this election.”
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