Monday, May 03, 2010

Becky Wagner and Living Wage

Many challengers for public office have sparse records on issues other than through their civic activities or biographies. But Becky Wagner, an at-large County Council challenger and Executive Director of prominent charity Interfaith Works, is an exception. She has a lengthy record on one of the premier progressive issues in Montgomery County from a decade ago: the county’s living wage law.

In 1999, freshmen County Council Members Phil Andrews and Blair Ewing first proposed a living wage law that would require county contractors to pay their workers at least $10.41 per hour. The proposal was unpopular among some in the non-profit community who did not want to face higher labor costs in their perpetually tight budgets. But Lon Dring, Executive Director of Community Ministry (which later became Interfaith Works), was an enthusiastic supporter of the proposal. Becky Wagner, who replaced Dring in 1999, at first adhered to his position according to the Gazette:

Theresa Cameron, executive director of the Arts Council of Montgomery County, said she’d like the council to look at exempting nonprofits.

“We’re all in favor of paying people fair wages, but it could hurt the arts community,” she said.

But Rebecca Wagner, executive director of the nonprofit Community Ministry, said nonprofits should not be exempt.

“I think it would be dishonest of us to believe that people need a living wage and not provide it,” she said.

About a third of her budget comes from county contracts and grants, with some workers not making $10.41 an hour, she said.

Wagner is also concerned that efforts to help the poor will stop with this bill. “People will walk away and say we’ve solved the problem and of course it won’t be solved,” she said. “It’s a bigger issue than a wage discussion.”
But the Gazette reported that Wagner assumed a different position a month later.

Rebecca Wagner, executive director of Community Ministry of Montgomery County, reversed course from earlier support for the living wage.

Wagner said Thursday that rather than creating an artificial salary, the government should focus on giving people the access to child care and skills training so they can move up without a government mandate.

Community Ministry has been a key supporter of the living wage. The previous executive director, the Rev. Lon Dring, showed up at the bill's introduction and has been a vocal supporter.
The 1999 version of the living wage bill died after Council Members Mike Subin and Steve Silverman backed out of campaign promises to support it. But Andrews and Ewing began to float the idea of reviving living wage by increasing non-profit budgets to make up for increased costs. The Gazette reported this about Wagner’s reaction:

Andrews and Ewing say they will send nonprofits a letter asking them to submit higher funding requests so the agencies can pay their workers a living wage.

And one nonprofit that provided key opposition to the living-wage bill has already signed on -- Community Ministry of Montgomery County.

Executive Director Rebecca Wagner told the council Tuesday, to the surprise and delight of Ewing and Andrews, that she would request additional funding so she can pay all of her workers a living wage.

Wagner played a prominent role in the death of the living-wage bill. She was one of 12 leaders of nonprofits to sign a letter opposing the bill in favor of a package of subsidies for the working poor.

“It’s an encouraging step,” Andrews said of Wagner’s statement. “Hopefully, it will be contagious.

“The issue of the living wage has not gone away because the problem has not gone away, and the problem is low wages,” he said.
A different version of the living wage bill ultimately passed in 2002, this one exempting non-profits.

In 2006, Council Member Mike Subin introduced a bill requiring county contractors to match the health care coverage provided by the county government. The bill was supported by MCGEO and Progressive Maryland but did not pass. Wagner testified on that bill and we reprint her comments below.

Good afternoon. My name is Becky Wagner, and I serve as Executive Director of Community Ministry of Montgomery County. We’re in an interface coalition of 135 congregations working together to meet the needs of the poor through service, education, and advocacy.

Today I’m offering testimony on Bill 42-06. I have read the bill and the materials provided by the Council office to determine what the bill is requiring of providers having contracts over $50,000 or more. I imagine the bill will be developed in committee and over time. For that reason, I thought it might be helpful to share with you the benefits provided by Community Ministry and their cost in the challenge of meeting this obligation. CMMC pays a living wage and has for six years. In addition, employees working 20 or more hours per week qualify for full benefits including: health and life insurance, a matching 403(b) plan, vacation, and sick leave. We make every attempt to have employees work at least 20 hours per week so that they may take advantage of these benefits. The health insurance benefit is the most costly benefit, and 36 of our employees participate in the plan. We pay $3,000 toward the annual premium and the employee pays $20 per pay period, for a total of $520 annually. Providing that benefit, which we are glad to do, costs Community Ministry just under $100,000 a year for health insurance alone. Our entire benefit package is about 17 percent of total salary.

Though do - I do not understand clearly the daunting matrix of the county's benefits and premiums, it appears that in all cases the annual premiums are well above what we are able to afford. Our full-coverage HMO per individual is $3,500 a year, and for a family it is $9,400 a year. This premium is the best price after researching MANO and CNA and other small business provider packages. As you know, we are a well-established nonprofit; and we have a broad-based funding stream. A significant increase beyond what we are currently managing for health insurance would present an enormous burden, and one I am not confident that we could manage. For emerging and smaller nonprofits serving special communities, I would expect mandated county level benefits and premiums could break the backs of those providers. In the past three-years, our health insurance premiums have increased by 14 -- 11, 14, and 15 percent, for a total of 40 percent. Our county contracts have allowed 1 and 2 percent inflationary increases for that same period and only after an Act of Council during the budget process. As in all of our work, funds for operating and infrastructure costs are the most difficult to raise. I urge you to consider the implications of the unfunded mandate of matching the county's benefits and premium costs. While asking thoughtful consideration of the need for nonprofit organizations, we believe in the value of providing health insurance for our employees and would be pleased to work with you as this legislation is developed.
County Council at-large incumbents George Leventhal, Nancy Floreen, Marc Elrich and Duchy Trachtenberg all co-sponsored and voted for the 2008 Montgomery County Prevailing Wage Law, which protected wage and benefit standards for construction workers on county-owned projects. All four are running for re-election and Wagner is running for one of their seats.

We asked Becky Wagner for a comment on the living wage issue. She sent us the following response:

The 1999 Living Wage bill was bitterly debated legislation that divided natural partners in the struggle to bring working poor families to self-sufficiency. At the time, I had served as Executive Director of CMMC (now Interfaith Works) for less than three months. The Board of Directors had not considered the issue, nor endorsed this legislation. As the debate roiled, on June 25 I wrote to bill sponsor Council member Phil Andrews and asked that the legislation be tabled, and urged that we apply “the energy and talent being used to pull apart this bill to work on a comprehensive, integrated plan to address the pressures faced by the working poor in Montgomery County.” In July, our Board Chair testified that CMMC did not endorse the bill because “we believe that the pressures faced by the working poor are greater than the wage debate fostered by 19-99, and that the carve-outs and exemptions limit the potential benefit to working men and women.”

CMMC (Interfaith Works) did support County Executive Duncan’s “Rewarding Work” effort, which resulted in the first County matching Earned Income Tax Credit in the nation, and today provides more than $13M in our County budget to all qualifying working families. In addition, when the wage legislation was re-written in March 2002, CMMC was able to support Bill 05-02, which is now the Living Wage law in Montgomery County.

In October, 2006, I provided testimony on Bill 42-06, offered by Council Member Subin. The Bill required that all providers having County contracts above $50K be required to provide the same health benefits as the County provides. The purpose of my testimony was to educate our Council members about CMMC's efforts to provide health benefits to our employees, the costs related to that, and in fact provide a reminder that County contracts are not funded in a manner that supports benefits at the level provided by the County. It is widely known and accepted that historically, governmental entities provide exceptional retirement, leave and medical benefits that for-profits and non-profits are simply unable to match. My testimony was the simple truth and was consistent with the transparency that is a hallmark of Interfaith Works. A major reason for providing that testimony was our effort to represent other nonprofits struggling to provide services to the most vulnerable while maintaining best practices, all on a shoestring. My testimony reinforces my belief and that of our Board of Directors that our employees should be fairly paid and receive good health insurance as well as other benefits. The best of ideas have unintended consequences, and the value of public input is to hear and understand all of the potential outcomes and make decisions based upon that information.