The minimum wage in D.C. and Montgomery County is moving up to $11.50, but there are efforts to push it even higher: to $15.
In 2013, legislators in D.C., Montgomery County and Prince George's County agreed to cooperate — not compete — on the minimum wage. Each jurisdiction would raise its minimum wage to $11.50, D.C. by 2016 and the counties by the year after.
The idea behind the coordinated wage hike was simple: It would help cut down on the possibility that businesses in any of the jurisdictions would pick and move to one nearby where wages were slightly lower.
Now another coordinated wage hike may be in the offing, but this one has more to do with coincidence than cooperation.
Earlier this week, D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser announced that she would send legislation to the D.C. Council to raise the city's minimum wage to $15 by 2020. The news didn’t only catch D.C. legislators by surprise, but also some outside the city.
"We have a bill drafted that we’re introducing that would also raise it to $15 [by 2020]. I didn’t know they were doing it in D.C.," says Montgomery County Council member Marc Elrich (D), who was one of the legislators who in 2013 helped arranged the coordinated push for an $11.50 minimum wage.
In explaining her decision, Bowser said that even though $11.50 is better than what the city had before, it's simply not enough to help workers who make the minimum wage remain in the city, which has gotten more expensive as it had boomed in recent years.
Elrich says much the same. "You can’t live on $11.50, you can’t live on $12. I think most Americans realize you can’t live on the minimum wage, not the minimum wages that are out there now."
A national campaign is pushing cities and states to increase their minimum wage to $15, arguing that it will be one means to help combat the rising tide of income inequality across the country. A measure to move to $15 by 2012 has qualified for the California ballot, Seattle is already phasing in its $15 minimum wage and by 2018 New York City will pay its employees and contractors a minimum wage of $15.
Locally, though, moves to increase wages have often been seen against the backdrop of regional competition for everything from businesses to sports teams. If one jurisdiction requires higher wages for workers, say opponents of wage hikes, then businesses won't have to travel far for a jurisdiction that doesn't.
That's why Elrich says the move to $15 in both D.C. and Montgomery County is important, whether or not it was planned.
"If [Bowser] makes that move and we do the same thing, then we’re back to where we were when we did this in the first place. We’ll move together, we’ll have the same wage base. It’s totally the right thing to do," he says.
But getting to $15 isn't a given. Both measures have to make it through their respective councils, where business groups will lobby to slow — if not stop — and further wage hikes. And in D.C., Council Chairman Phil Mendelson worries about raising the minimum wage at the same time legislators are considering a paid family leave bill that would be the most generous in the country.
"If it's too expensive in the District, employers will go elsewhere," he says.
Opponents of the $15 minimum wage say it will merely send business and jobs to Virginia, where the minimum wage remains at $7.25 and seems unlikely to budge. And though D.C. and Montgomery County could move together to $15, Prince George's County might not. A spokeswoman for the County Council says there are no bills being considered to raise the minimum wage there above $11.50.
In Maryland, the statewide minimum wage is increasing to $10.10 by 2018.