- The Washington Times - Friday, February 24, 2006

While the D.C. government contemplates how to secure financing for its school modernization project, the D.C. Council is considering a proposal to allocate funding in order to institute a “living wage” of $11.75 per hour for employees of the government and many organizations that receive government funding. The bill passed through its first reading on Feb. 7 with the only vote in opposition coming from Carol Schwartz, a Republican. The legislation needs to pass another vote before being sent to Mayor Tony Williams, and there is little reason to doubt that it will pass easily this election year. But the bill won’t push down the high city’s jobless rate.

When the Maryland legislature proposed a similar living wage of $10.50 per hour for state contractors two years ago, Gov. Robert Ehrlich wisely vetoed the measure and stood his ground against challenges from the state legislature. The D.C. proposal will meet no such resistance.

Currently, the minimum wage paid to all D.C. government employees, like employees of the federal government, is determined by the U.S. Department of Labor in accordance with the Service Contract Act, which determines a minimum wage based on profession and reviewed about once a year. Two proposals were put forth last year: one from Council member David Catania that set the minimum wage at $10.50, and the other from Mr. Williams that set it at $9.25 along with health-insurance benefits. The council topped both proposals by adopting the $11.75 figure. The living-wage law would apply to the recipients of “contracts, grants, loans, Industrial Revenue Bonds, or Tax Increase Financing agreements” worth at least $100,000 per year, and to subcontractors of those recipients who were paid at least $15,000.

The council also voted in 2005 to increase the minimum wage from $6.60 to $7 per hour, which went into effect on Jan. 1 — although this is still well below the $11.75 mark, the trend is indisputable.

Increasing the minimum wage does not confront the District’s many employment problems, and will likely compound them. The unemployment rate in the District, which was 6 percent in December, is higher than both the regional and national rates. A higher minimum wage will exacerbate this problem, displacing workers by discouraging city contractors from taking on more workers. If lawmakers want to help unemployed and low-income D.C. workers, money would be better spent meeting the demands of the labor market by fixing job-training programs — and not simply increasing wages.

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