BETHESDA — — Gov. Martin O'Malley joined U.S. Labor Secretary Thomas E. Perez at a popular burrito restaurant in this Washington suburb Thursday to praise its higher-than-minimum wages and to call for a pay raise for other American workers.
The event at Boloco gave O'Malley an opportunity to lend public support to a top priority of President Obama at a time when the governor has been at odds with the administration over how to shelter immigrant children from Central America.
Appearing with Perez, Montgomery County Executive Isiah "Ike" Leggett and Boloco chief executive Patrick Renna, O'Malley said the 22-restaurant chain does well by treating its employees well.
"We raise the minimum wage because it's good for our economy," O'Malley said. "Prosperity doesn't trickle down from the top."
Renna said his Boston-based chain, which has a single outlet in Maryland, pays all employees at least $9 an hour and averages $11.50. He said he hopes to get the floor up to $10 later this year.
Renna said a higher wage produces a workforce that is happier, more engaged and stays with the company longer. He said that yields a better experience for customers.
Obama has called on Congress to increase the federal minimum wage from $7.25 to $10.10. Republicans have resisted that proposal, saying it would cost jobs during a sluggish economic recovery.
Obama, who says putting more money in workers' pockets would help the recovery, has urged states and smaller jurisdictions to act on their own.
Maryland is one of the states that has responded. O'Malley proposed legislation to raise Maryland's minimum to $10.10. The legislature agreed, but ordered the increase to be phased in over four years. It is scheduled to peak in 2018.
Montgomery County, the state's largest jurisdiction, has adopted a minimum wage that will reach $11.50 in 2017.
Lawmakers in Annapolis approved the state increase over the opposition of Republicans and some conservative Democrats, who said they were concerned about its impact on businesses.
"Maryland, after we do this, will be a less competitive state," Del. Warren E. Miller, a Howard County Republican, said during floor debate. "Companies will not locate here; companies will leave if they can."
Perez, who was a labor secretary in O'Malley's Cabinet, called such arguments "bunk." He pointed to Washington state, which has the nation's highest state minimum wage.
"If opponents of the minimum wage were correct, when you flew into Washington, you'd probably need a bag lunch,'" Perez said. Instead, he said, "restaurants are thriving."
The joint appearance was a show of solidarity between the O'Malley and Obama administrations after a spat over how to handle the influx of unaccompanied minors from Central America crossing the border illegally.
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O'Malley pressed federal officials to be more welcoming toward children he calls refugees. The White House pushed back by putting out the word that O'Malley opposed using a former military facility in Westminster to house some of the children.
O'Malley said Thursday there was no tension with the White House: "We're all trying to solve the problem here."
But the governor stood by his opposition to large group shelters in favor of placement in homes. He said he hasn't heard of one social worker or counselor who believes a "large congregate living facility" is best for children.
Asked whether he had spoken to the president or high White House officials about his concerns, O'Malley declined to offer specifics, but said, "I think we've been heard."
But when asked whether federal officials had taken the possibility of a large shelter in Maryland off the table, he said "I don't think so."