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Amid National Debate, Gray Remains Undecided On Minimum Wage Increase

D.C.'s current minimum wage is $8.25 an hour, and some say that's too low.
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D.C.'s current minimum wage is $8.25 an hour, and some say that's too low.

Mayor Vince Gray isn't only undecided on the fate of a bill that would force Walmart and other large retailers to pay a living wage of $12.50 an hour, but he's also noncommittal on whether or not the city's minimum wage should be increased at all.

"Whatever wages are going to be you're always going to have complaints, and where I see it you're going to have to balance those kind of factors against the business factors that exist as well," he said in an interview. "Whatever action I would take... I haven't decided at this stage."

In recent weeks low-wage workers across the country have organized protests outside fast food outlets, where they have demanded that the federal minimum wage be raised from $7.25 to at least $10 an hour. In January, President Obama said that the minimum wage should be increased to $9 an hour.

Locally, federally contracted concession workers at Union Station and the Smithsonian have similarly protested, saying that they do not make enough money to escape poverty. And in July, the D.C. Council approved the Large Retailer Accountability Act, which would require certain large retailers to pay $12.50 an hour, more than the city's minimum wage of $8.25. In the wake of the bill's passage—which Gray hasn't yet received—Walmart axed plans for three of six stores in the city.

The issue will likely spill over into the fall. Last month D.C. Council member and mayoral contender Tommy Wells (D-Ward 6)—who voted against the Walmart bill—introduced a bill that would increase the city's minimum wage from the current $8.25 to $10.25 over the next two years, and then tie regular increases to the rate of inflation. The bill would also increase the standard deduction for personal income taxes. (An existing D.C. law requires a living wage of $11.75 for contractors working on city-funded projects.)

Social justice advocates say that raising the minimum wage in D.C. to $12 an hour would help two-thirds of low-income families to move out of poverty, as well as offer them more purchasing power that would help fuel the local economy.

But business groups have said that raising wages—especially during a tentative economic recovery—could limit job creation and make D.C. less competitive relative to neighboring jurisdictions. For Gray, the issue of jobs seems to carry some weight, especially when unemployment approaches 20 percent in the city's poorest areas.

"For some of young people, being able to have a job that teaches a work ethic is hugely important," he said. "Some people have that with Walmart it's the difference between $9 an hour and $12.50 an hour. I don't think it is at all, because Walmart has basically said, 'We're not coming to the city under those conditions.' It's probably a difference between zero and $9 an hour."

Still, Gray said that he recognized that current wages can make it hard to live in D.C., where a recent report found that affording a standard two-bedroom apartment takes a wage of over $25 an hour.

"That's a balance we're always trying to strike: what is good to be able to create a healthy and growing business climate and what's going to make sure that our people have a chance to be able to live in a city like this."

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