A Column by Councilmember Phil Andrews,
a Version of Which Appeared in the Washington Post on July 4, 1999
The purpose of this Living Wage legislation is simple -- to honor and reward work by insuring that working men and women who are employed by larger County government contractors or by companies receiving large subsidies from the County earn a wage they and their families can live on.
In the midst of economic prosperity and a 1.7 percent unemployment rate in Montgomery County, the number of families living in poverty has increased by 60 percent. The ranks of the working poor are growing. The rising tide is not lifting all boats.
Nearly 23,000 of our public school students qualify for free lunches – which means their family income is less than $21,710 a year. That’s 20 percent of our students being raised in poverty – compared to five percent 20 years ago.
I just received a letter from a teacher, a 23-year veteran of our school system, voicing her support for the living wage.
"It shames me every time a student reports that his parents can be reached before 6:30 in the morning and after 11 at night – Mom and Dad are at work in the hours between, trying to make up by grinding perseverance for the inadequate hourly wages they receive.
"These parents, no matter how concerned they are about their children, are in no position to offer the kind of at-home support and guidance that send most County students to school every day.
"A living wage ordinance would give some of these concerned mothers and fathers the opportunity to be not only the best providers they can be, but also the best parents they can be."
At a time when we are celebrating the reduction of our welfare rolls, we ought to lend a helping hand to the working poor and their children so they can build a future of independence and self-sufficiency.
The Post says we should just give poor people more government assistance. Call me old-fashioned, but I’d rather put money in their pocket – money that they’ll take pride in earning and money they’ll spend with Montgomery County businesses.
Montgomery County will do what 30 other local governments around the country have already done – localities like Baltimore and Chicago, San Jose and New York City, Des Moines and Durham, NC – we will pass a living wage bill.
And those cities and towns are doing just fine economically. The sky isn’t falling – contrary to the Chicken Little hysterics of the Post editorial.
There is no evidence that the living wage has hurt "economic competitiveness" or imperiled the economic health of any jurisdiction where it has been in effect.
Among the economic benefits of the living wage are less employee turnover, higher morale and productivity, and increased competition – as contractors bid for County work based on the quality of their services, rather than trying to undercut each other on wages. That’s why some County contractors have voiced support, in the Post no less, for the living wage bill.
As of July 1, 2000, the bill would require all companies who choose to work on County contracts and have 5 or more employees and $50,000 or more worth of work annually to pay those employees doing County work $9 an hour (112 percent of the federal poverty standard for a family) if the employer provides health benefits or $10.44 an hour (130 percent of the federal standard) without benefits. Companies who choose to receive County economic development monies or tax credits of more than $100,000 would also be covered.
The living wage measure will address perceived problems concerning Silver Spring redevelopment by exempting the urban renewal area, and a majority of Councilmembers have indicated they’ll expand that to all County enterprise zones.
We aren’t about to let anything to get in the way of Silver Spring redevelopment. In fact, Silver Spring redevelopment is moving right ahead, as reported in the Post.
The bill also includes a hardship exemption for any company that can demonstrate "serious economic hardship."
Our County should invest our public dollars in this modest effort to raise the one or two thousand working poor men and women potentially affected above the poverty line.
There’s no reason we can’t help the working poor and continue to make this County a good place to do business. We are a big enough County to do both.
The Post says scrap the whole idea – but Montgomery County isn’t buying that. Six of the nine Councilmembers have pledged their support for some form of living wage legislation, as has the County Executive.
We will have a living wage – the only question is the details. Let’s start the process of lending a helping hand to those who have little but work hard every day to lift themselves and their families up. They are the real issue.