The D.C. Council unanimously endorsed an $11.50 per-hour minimum wage in the nation’s capital on Tuesday, completing a rare act of regional cooperation between the city and its Maryland suburbs and setting up a stark contrast with the federal minimum wage, which is paid in Virginia and remains at $7.25.
By coordinating with lawmakers in Montgomery and Prince George’s counties, which approved similar measures late last month, the council put the three localities on the cusp of creating a contiguous region with 2.5 million residents and a minimum wage higher than any of the 50 states.
The D.C. council must hold a final vote on the rate increase and send it to Mayor Vincent C. Gray (D), likely early next year. But with all 13 council members pledging support, the final vote appeared to be a formality and the overwhelming margin of support capable of overriding any veto by Gray, who repeated Tuesday that he would prefer a smaller increase, to $10 per hour.
After Gray announced on Monday that he would seek a second term, the high-profile minimum-wage vote set the stage for a day of intense political theater in and around the council chambers on Pennsylvania Avenue.
The votes needed to pass the measure had for days been a foregone conclusion, but with four council members running for mayor and five more seeking reelection next year, the suspense became about who could claim credit.
The council’s appetite for a minimum-wage increase was whetted this fall with Gray’s veto of a bill that would have required Wal-Mart to pay employees at its District stores a 50 percent premium over the city’s current minimum wage of $8.25.
Council member Tommy Wells (D-Ward 6), a candidate for mayor who has been working to burnish his credentials with business leaders, cast a decisive no-vote against the Wal-Mart bill in September. He said at the time that it created an unfair playing field for companies and would only help low-paid Wal-Mart workers. Wells was among the first to introduce legislation for a minimum-wage hike, and his bill for $10.55 had the first majority of the council join in support.
“I had the leadership to get nine votes . . . I led the first bill to show I could get this done,” Wells told reporters outside the council chamber Monday morning. “I promised I’d get this done, and I’m getting it done today.”
But council member Vincent B. Orange (D-At Large), another candidate for mayor, chaired the committee that worked out a compromise between what became four separate bills to raise the minimum wage, including his own to make a top rate of $12.50 per hour, and used his own bill as the vehicle for the final vote.
“This is legislation introduced by me,” Orange said from the dais, adding that unlike Gray’s vote against the Wal-Mart bill in the fall, his ability to forge agreement amounted to a first step toward “not leaving people behind,” in a a wave of economic development and prosperity in the city.
Not to be left out, council member Muriel Bowser (D-Ward 4), another Wal-Mart no-vote, attempted to congratulate a group of union workers and advocates for the poor on the steps of the Wilson Building before the vote.
“I want to say congratulations to everyone here. In this city we know it takes fighting for all the residents of the District of Columbia,” Bowser said before she was interrupted by a heckler who brought up her Wal-Mart vote.
The Rev. Graylan Hagler, a longtime supporter of Gray who publicly split with the mayor over his Wal-Mart vote, said he was not surprised to see a unanimous vote.
“They are all running, and this is an attempt to make things square . . . they realized where the numbers are,” Hagler said. “Voters are right now really sensitive if you’re always kowtowing to business interests and don’t seem to have the same level of concern for those of us who live in the neighborhood — it’s reprehensible.”
For his part, Hagler credited Orange with Tuesday’s vote.
Prince George’s and Montgomery counties passed similar measures last week, raising the minimum in four increments by 2017.
The D.C. bill goes go two steps further: It would ramp up the city’s wage to $11.50 a year earlier, in 2016. And, once it hits that rate, the city would index the wage to inflation. D.C.’s current minimum is $8.25 per hour, a dollar above the federal minimum.
The bill would give D.C. one of the highest — if not the highest — minimum wages of any major U.S. city by 2016. Currently, San Francisco holds that title with a wage of $10.55 per hour. San Francisco’s rate is indexed to local inflation in California, meaning it is expected to approach $11.50 by 2016.
The Council also voted unanimously to back a related measure Tuesday to require employers to give tipped workers five days of accrued sick time. The measure closes a loophole in city employment law that advocates said had left workers susceptible to being fired for calling in sick once. Council members said the paid sick days would not only protect workers but also keep patrons of restaurants from eating food handled by sick employees. - Washington Post