- The Washington Times - Monday, January 13, 2014

An effort is underway in Prince George’s County to carve out an exemption to the much-ballyhooed “regional minimum wage” increase passed by lawmakers there, in Montgomery County and in the District last year.

County Council member Derrick Leon Davis is expected to introduce a bill Tuesday that would let one of the county’s largest employers, Six Flags, continue to pay its seasonal workers at the lower rate of $7.25 per hour instead of the wage that would increase to $11.50 per hour by 2017.

Labor activists and economic analysts who support wage increases called the exemption bad policy and worried that it could set a precedent for other industries and undermine the regional effort to combat poverty.

“Let us see how the legislation works before we come back and tamper with it,” said Joslyn Williams, president of the Metropolitan Washington Council AFL-CIO, who spoke in favor of wage increases across the region. “If we need to revisit, it needs to be based on specific experience.”

Six Flags annually employs about 2,000 seasonal workers — making it the largest source of summer youth employment in the county, said David Iannucci, senior economic development adviser to County Executive Rushern L. Baker III.

But because of the amusement park’s seasonal employment schedule — the park will be open daily for three months during the summer and on weekends from April 5 to Oct. 26 — lawmakers believe an exemption to the minimum wage law is in order.

“It’s a very unique situation that brings to bear a unique response,” said Mr. Davis, a Democrat whose district includes the Upper Marlboro area where Six Flags is located.

Asked why seasonal workers shouldn’t expect the same wages as employees in the rest of the county, Mr. Davis said that demographics of those employees don’t warrant the higher wages.

“These are not family wages. This is summer employment,” Mr. Davis said. “These children are typically on their way off to college.”

The county’s law already offers a minimum wage exception for workers younger than 19 who work less than 20 hours per week. The amendment seeks to exclude from the raised minimum wage anyone who “is hired by an amusement park to work only during the amusement park’s operating season.”

Only about 100 employees work year-round at the park, company officials said.

Six Flags has made its opposition to the wage bill known since it was introduced by the Prince George's County Council late last year.

“Their concern simply is that having a three-month window in which they can earn their money every year, in terms of a profit basis of the park, having the bill apply to their summer employees is a great hardship for them and impacts their profitability,” lawyer Edward Gibbs, who represents Six Flags, said at a Nov. 19 County Council hearing on the minimum-wage bill.

The company, which operates 16 amusement parks in the United States, has been on shaky financial footing in recent years, declaring bankruptcy in 2009 and emerging from bankruptcy protection a year later.

Scott Peterson, a spokesman for Mr. Baker, said the county executive understands the logic behind the bill.

Mr. Baker always supported raising the minimum wage, but he’s always expressed concern of keeping the county economically competitive,” Mr. Peterson said. “He would not want to see this legislation turn away an important company such as Six Flags.”

Mr. Iannucci agreed that keeping Six Flags viable was important to the county.

“To the extent that it could threaten the continued operation of Six Flags in Prince George’s County, it’s a very significant issue that needs to be addressed,” he said of the minimum wage exemption. He declined to say whether Six Flags officials suggested leaving the county if the bill stands.

Reached at his Largo office Monday, Mr. Gibbs deferred comment to Six Flags’ corporate offices.

Havilah Ross, a spokeswoman for the amusement park, said she was unable to reach executives who could answer questions about the wage exemption bill and to what degree the company lobbied legislators.

During his November presentation before the county, Mr. Gibbs said 72 percent of seasonal employees hired by the amusement park are county residents. Highlighting the $5.5 million in taxes that the park pays annually, Mr. Gibbs said that the company might have to re-evaluate how many employees it hires if the amusement park is not exempt from the wage hike.

Activists worry that an exemption could encourage other industries to seek similar treatment.

“Anytime you create an exemption for certain groups of people, that distorts what you are trying to push for,” said Ari Weisbard, of the D.C.-based Employment Justice Center. “It’s a basic floor, and once you start letting people go below, it’s a slippery slope.”

“There is the appearance of political favoritism,” Mr. Weisbard added.

Jack Temple, a policy analyst with the New York-based National Employment Law Project that supports wage increases, said businesses are often able to pocket extra savings and benefit from lower employee turnover when the minimum wage is increased.

“We don’t think its good policy,” he said. “We don’t think a seasonal company like that should be exempted.”

Mr. Davis said he would not consider exemption amendments for any other type of business and that he waited to introduce the exemption so the County Council could pass the minimum-wage bill as smoothly as similar bills did in Montgomery County and the District.

Lawmakers increased the minimum wage in the District after a failed effort last year to raise wages to $12.50 per hour at certain large retailers.

Wal-Mart, the principal target of the legislation, threatened to abandon plans to build six stores in the city if the legislation passed. Mayor Vincent C. Gray vetoed the bill before the council adopted the version that raises the minimum wage for most businesses in phases, reaching $11.50 per hour in 2016.

Mr. Gray has not said whether he would sign or veto the bill, having stated his preference for a $10 minimum wage. But the bill, which passed the council unanimously, seems likely to survive any mayoral veto.

Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley called for an increase to the state’s minimum wage to at least $10 per hour during the legislative session that began last week.

As state lawmakers look to raise the wage above the federal minimum of $7.25 per hour, activists see alterations to the laws adopted regionally as potential land mines.

“It would create mischief,” Mr. Williams said. “It would detract from our efforts to pass a statewide minimum wage.”

NOTE: An earlier version of this report misidentified the deputy director of the D.C.-based Employment Justice Center. He is Ari Weisbard. The error has since been corrected.