Prince George's lawmakers watch Annapolis for next move on minimum wage

One of the Prince George's County Council bills of 2013 that is attracting the most attention began inconspicuously enough, according to Council member Mary Lehman.

The first whisperings started in the fall.

"Following a Council meeting, there were four or five of us just sitting there, checking [our] email," Lehman said, when former Council Chairwoman Andrea Harrison "looked at the group and said: 'What would you guys think of a bill to raise the minimum wage?' "

"I said, 'I think it's way past due, what are you thinking of?' " Lehman, who represents Laurel in District 1, recalled.

Within a couple of weeks, Harrison had a bill and unanimous co-sponsorship from the other council members.

As 2014 begins, the minimum wage is the cause célébre at both the state and national levels.

In Washington, President Barack Obama and congressional Democrats have made it their priority to approve a minimum wage increase to $10.10, while some Republican leaders have argued that raising the minimum wage will lead some businesses to hire fewer employees.

Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley this week told CNN that he's "zeroing in on about $10 an hour" for the state's minimum wage.

In Prince George's, and next door in Montgomery County and the District of Columbia, the minimum wage is already on track to surpass those figures.

In late November, the Prince George's County Council voted to join Montgomery County in gradually raising the minimum wage to $11.50 by 2017.

The first increase, scheduled for October, will increase the minimum wage to $8.40 from the current rate of $7.25, which has been the minimum wage since 2009.

In October 2015, the floor will rise to $9.55 and in October 2016, it will reach $10.75.

The district followed suit with its own minimum wage hike in early December.

Lehman said the joint effort was orchestrated to make a statement.

"We're a powerhouse," she said of the Washington metropolitan region. "[It's] powerful to go together and make a statement that we believe that our lowest earners need to earn more, that wages haven't kept up with inflation and that we need to help people on the lower end of the earning scale.

"Everything increases – the cost of labor, the cost of materials – everything is constantly going up," Lehman added. "Everything's gone up but the minimum wage. That's not fair."

Footing the bill

Some Laurel small business owners said they weren't able to raise prices fast enough to keep up with the new wage increases.

Ginger Reeves, who owns Toucan Taco on Gorman Avenue, said to meet the bottom line she might have to cut down on hiring.

"The tide will rise all boats," she said, adding that the new increases will raise lower-paid workers' wages almost to the level of her two full-time employees.

"I don't know where that money's going to come from," she admitted. "You can raise the prices on what you're selling, but you can only go so far."

Reeves said she would probably end up doing more work herself.

"That's the kind of thing most of us in my situation are looking at," she said. "You pay somebody with that money or you do it yourself."

Between now and April, the Prince George's council and small businesses alike will be watching the General Assembly closely to see what steps state lawmakers take. A state bill has the potential to supersede the county's bill; although Lehman said she hoped politicians in Annapolis would "respect what we did."

She acknowledged that the cost of living in other parts of the state might not warrant as much of an increase as the one in the Washington metropolitan region.

"But we live here: We have to take care of our citizens," she said.

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