For individuals working at minimum wage and trying to raise a family in Loudoun County,Va.,and surrounding areas,it can be difficult to make ends meet.
A person making the federal minimum wage,$5.15 an hour,working 40 hours a week brings home about $11,000 a year. In Loudoun County,where the median gross rent for an apartment totaled nearly $11,500 annually,according to the 2000 Census,11 percent of residents were spending 50 percent or more of their income on rent.
Dawn Miller,executive director of Interfaith Relief,an organization that provides food to about 3,600 needy individuals a month,said that most of her clients are working people.
“They run out of money before they run out of month,” she said.
Several cities and counties in Virginia and Maryland have responded to the problems of low-wage workers by enacting what are called “living wage” laws. Generally,the laws require the governments or their contractors to pay workers enough for a family of four to meet its basic needs.
Jim Barnes,director of the Loudoun County Office of Public Information,said the county is not yet considering a living wage law.
“It sounds like something that just hasn't been of interest in Loudoun,” Barnes said.
In Prince George's County,Md.,the County Council passed a living wage bill June 3. It requires any business that has a contract of more than $50,000 a year and employs more than 10 people to pay its workers $10.50 a hour,said Council Member Thomas R. Hendershot.
The county contracts with outside firms for such services as trash collection,leaf collection and landscaping,Hendershot said.
“We don't have many contracts like that in Loudoun County,” Barnes said.
Virginia has taken the position that cities and counties do not necessarily have permission under state law to establish living wage laws.
“Generally,no locality has the ability to tie procurement to the enactment of living wage requirements,” said Carrie Cantrell,a spokeswoman for the Virginia attorney general.
Cities have the authority to enact this type of legislation if the city’s charter grants that authority,Cantrell said. But counties do not have charters and do not have permission to enact living wage laws without permission from the General Assembly,she said.
Alexandria and Charlottesville,Va.,and Maryland’s Baltimore City and Montgomery County have living wage laws. Neither Fairfax nor Fauquier county has considered a living wage bill,spokesmen for the counties said.
In Alexandria,the city attorney determined that it was legal for the city to create a living wage law,said Jack Pitzer,director of purchasing.
“It's been in effect since 2001,and we haven't had a challenge yet from anyone,” said Pitzer.
Cantrell said she doesn’t know what the Alexandria charter says,but if the city’s charter does not grant it specific authority,then the state’s view is that the city is violating the law.
According to Alexandria’s Web site,the living wage will be $10.89 per hour as of July 1 for all contracts that are begun or renewed through June 30,2004.
Chris Zimmerman,a member of the Arlington County Board,said that he proposed a living wage bill 15 months ago. Zimmerman said that the board has approved the budget for the bill and will hold a public hearing June 28.
Zimmerman said he expects the board to vote that day so the ordinance can take effect July 1 with the county’s new fiscal year.
Zimmerman said that the opinion of the board is that it is acting under the county's procurement laws,which allow the county to spend its own money in the ways it sees fit.
“I'm feeling pretty confident that we'll get it pretty soon,” Zimmerman said.
Charles B. Smith,a lawyer for the American Federation of State,County and Municipal Employees Council 30,said his union supports the living wage efforts in Alexandria,Arlington and Richmond.
“You really can't get workers for less than minimum wage in Arlington because the cost of living is so high,” Smith said.
State Senator Yvonne B. Miller,D-Norfolk,proposed a state living wage bill in 2000.
Nathan Hatfield,a Virginia Senate information officer,said that the bill died in committee in 2001.
Miller said that she plans to re-introduce the bill in 2004.
“Labor groups are interested in having it reintroduced,” she said. “Sometimes these people are working two or three jobs and can't live off of it.”