UPPER MARLBORO – Typically, when the county council votes on a piece of legislation, that is the end of the process, but when it comes to a minimum wage waiver passed last week, council members say the vote is just the beginning. The council voted 7-2 in favor of CB-96-2016, which provides the option for […]
UPPER MARLBORO – Typically, when the county council votes on a piece of legislation, that is the end of the process, but when it comes to a minimum wage waiver passed last week, council members say the vote is just the beginning.
The council voted 7-2 in favor of CB-96-2016, which provides the option for direct service providers who work with individuals with disabilities under contract with the state Developmental Disabilities Administration (DDA) to apply for a waiver from the county’s minimum wage law. Council Members Obie Patterson and Mary Lehman were the dissenting votes, and although their colleagues supported the bill, they see it as an imperfect solution to a complex problem.
“The bill in and of itself isn’t a perfect solution, and I think that’s been articulated over and over. What it is is a step forward,” said Council Chair Derrick Davis.
At issue is the fact that the county minimum wage – which stands at $10.75 per hour as of Oct. 1 – is higher than the state minimum wage, $8.75 per hour. Because DDA is a state agency, their payments to service providers are based on the state minimum. The current wage factor is 22 percent, which provides a wage of just $10.60, below the county minimum. Without the waiver, the agencies could be vulnerable to legal penalties for failure to meet the minimum wage, which in Maryland law include monetary damages and payment of legal fees.
However, provider agencies are more worried about ensuring the safety of the disabled individuals they care for, which includes providing a competitive wage to keep and maintain qualified caregivers in the county. Rob Malone, executive director of The Arc of Prince George’s County, a grassroots organization that advocates for those with developmental disabilities, said low wages for caregivers “heightens the risk” for disabled individuals.
“What’s important to me as the leader of an organization like The Arc is that in order to provide quality services so that people are safe, you have to pay the providers enough,” he said.
Ande Culp, who runs a provider agency called Compass and serves as president of the Prince George’s Provider’s Council, an organization of DDA providers, said the council’s action sends a message to providers and the people they serve that they are not valued.
“I can promise you that Compass would shutter its doors – and maybe we’d all be out in the streets, but we’d be out in the streets together – before I let that happen. I will not send that message of devaluation to our employees,” she told the council.
Advocates want the county government to contribute money to the DDA providers to bridge the salary gap so qualified professionals don’t leave for other jurisdictions like Montgomery County and the District of Columbia, which provide additional money.
However, county officials say they do not have the financial resources in Prince George’s County to make that happen.
“I wish we were Montgomery County. Montgomery County, every year, is funding their DDA providers $13 million,” said Council Vice Chair Dannielle Glaros. “For perspective’s sake, in this year’s budget, for the first time, our department of social services will be receiving $3.6 million from the county. Last year it was less than $3 million. Our budgets are not the same. Our financial resources are, sadly, not the same.”
She said the $9 million required to bring parity is “clearly a very heavy lift” for this county.
Glaros has been the council’s point person on this issue, and amended the bill just before the vote to make it more palatable. The amendment narrows the scope of the waiver so it only applies during the time between the county’s next wage hike on Oct. 1, 2017 (up to $11.50 per hour) and when the state increases its minimum wage to $10.10 on July 1, 2018. This allows the providers time to adjust to the increase, and also gives the county additional time to convince the state to provide more money to the providers so they do meet county minimum wage.
“This council and the (County Executive Rushern Baker, III) Administration have worked together with the developmental disabilities community to work toward solutions that would allow us to float above water while we continue to fight at the state level,” Davis said.
Glaros explained after the county passed its minimum wage increase, the state lowered the wage factor for DDA providers from 30 percent to 22 percent. She said if the wage factor were returned to the 30 percent level, the providers would be in compliance with county wage laws without the waiver being necessary.
“I think there’s a real opportunity for us to push for the wage factor to be at 30 percent. Because you all are right: you deserve the best care. You deserve people who are providing for you and are not thinking about leaving for another job,” she said during the hearing. “The wage factor should not be at 22 percent. The wage factor should minimally be at 30 percent, and it should be higher.”
All members of the council agreed the state should provide more money, but Lehman and Patterson disagreed that the waiver was the right short-term solution.
“I think it’s just unreal that we are even here talking about it,” Patterson said. “It treats groups differently, and I think once you go down that road you’re headed in the wrong direction.”
“I do not think a waiver is the way to go,” Lehman said. “It’s an economic justice issue and I can’t support an approach like this.”
Malone at The Arc said his organization will work with the county to push for more funding from the state, but providers are hurting from the low pay now.
“What the county doesn’t seem to realize is that the impact is happening now. I certainly feel that our leaders, who are responsible for a $3.6 billion budget, can put aside something, $1 million or $2 million, to protect these individuals,” he said.
County officials maintain that the county’s structural budget problems and inability to increase tax rates prevent it from pledging funds. Meanwhile, the state of Maryland can raise tax rates and is running a budget surplus, council members pointed out.
“This is not to pass the buck, but someone talked about us coming up with more revenue. The fact is the state of Maryland has the ability to raise revenue. We do not here. We cannot raise revenue, we cannot raise taxes, without putting the question on the ballot,” Lehman said.