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As Minimum Wage Inches Up In D.C. And Maryland, Activists Say More Is Needed

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The minimum wage in D.C. and Maryland goes up on Wednesday, though some activists say the pay hike isn't enough.
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The minimum wage in D.C. and Maryland goes up on Wednesday, though some activists say the pay hike isn't enough.

Social justice activists in both the District and Maryland are cheering planned minimum wage increases that will take effect on Wednesday, while saying that more needs to be done to help low-wage workers living in an ever more expensive region.

Starting on Wednesday, the minimum wage in the District will climb $1 to $10.50 an hour, part of a three-year increase to $11.50 that was approved by the D.C. Council in late 2013. The first part of the wage hike took effect last July, when the minimum wage increased from $8.25 to $9.50.

And in Maryland, the statewide minimum wage will jump a quarter to $8.25, part of a bill passed by the General Assembly last year that will see the wage increase to $10.10 by 2018. (The minimum wage is already higher in Montgomery and Prince George's counties, and will also be increasing to $11.50 by 2017.) It's the second such increase this year — in January, the statewide minimum wage rose from $7.25 to $8 an hour.

"We're excited for the people who are going to see a raise. It goes up a quarter [on Wednesday]. it doesn't sound like a lot, but that's an $40 a month. And when you're trying to get by on minimum wage, that extra $40 a month can really make a difference in having groceries stretch over a month," says Charly Carter, director of Maryland Working Families.

"This helps workers a lot. There are a lot of workers that are stuck at the minimum wage and this is the only way they get a raise," echoes Sheena Wadhawan, advocacy director for the D.C.-based Employment Justice Center.

But both Carter and Wadhawan temper their comments, saying that the wage increases that are taking place are still behind what they'd like to see across Maryland and in D.C.

"It's just a start. It's not nearly where we should be. As you look around the country, you see cities quickly moving from $10.10 an hour being a goal to $15 an hour being a goal," says Carter.

And while such a move would be a tough sell across Maryland, it may come to pass in D.C. by next year. That's when a group of labor activists hope residents will vote on a measure that would see the minimum wage continue rising to $15 by 2020.

Wages for tipped workers would also rise until they hit $15 by 2025, ending the existing discrepancy between tipped and other workers. Language for the ballot initiative will be considered by the D.C. Board of Elections on Wednesday.

"Nationwide we're seeing a trend towards higher and higher minimum wage. I think there's a recognition that this economic recovery is not going to work for people with the wage stagnation that we have," says Wadhawan, who thinks a $15 minimum wage would help more low-wage workers remain in the city.

But while business leaders in the nation's capital grudgingly accepted the current minimum wage increase to $11.50, they are ready to fight anything above and beyond that.

"The concern is that raising the minimum wage will cost the city jobs, and competitiveness is what matters. Because if you compare where would be compared to surrounding jurisdictions, that would reduce our competitiveness and have a chilling effect on our economy," says Harry Wingo, president of the D.C. Chamber of Commerce.

Wingo says that a $15 minimum wage would upset the existing regional balance struck last year, when Montgomery and Prince George's counties joined with D.C. in moving towards an $11.50 wage. The minimum wage in both counties is currently $8.40 and will grow to $9.55 in October; it will reach $11.50 by 2017, a year after D.C.

Wingo says he will speak against the ballot initiative at the Board of Elections on Wednesday, but if the board approves the language, he'll have to wage a bigger fight to stop it from getting on the ballot — and if it does, convincing residents to vote it down in 2016.

In Maryland, Carter says that while the move beyond the $10.10 minimum wage may be slow, it's a goal that activists and coalitions have set for themselves for the coming years. They also plan on pushing to do away with the lower minimum wage for tipped workers, she says.

"I think in the near future you will see in Maryland a push to go beyond the $10.10 and to reclaim wages for workers who earn tips," she says. "You'll see a statewide push. We really need to expand incomes for workers all over the state. We can't leave out people in western Maryland or on the Eastern Shore."

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