Hennepin County is poised to raise its employees’ minimum wage to $20 an hour, a move that commissioners hope will serve as an example for other employers in the region.

During a March 16 committee meeting, county commissioners unanimously approved the increase, which will go into effect March 28, pending final approval by the same policymakers at the March 23 County Board meeting. The last time the county raised the minimum wage for its employees was in 2015, when the floor was set at $15 an hour.

With the county’s push to again raise wages for its staff, “I hope that other employers in the region will see this as an invitation to do the same,” said County Board Chair Marion Greene, who introduced the proposal.

Greene, a St. Louis Park resident representing District 3, hopes employers will “decide that they, too, want to use the single biggest tool that they have, completely within their reach, to improve the future of their lowest-paid employees and address equity in the region.”

By increasing its workers’ pay, the county is fulfilling its leadership role in the region, District 4 Commissioner Angela Conley said. “It makes sense to me as a leader and as a thought leader and an entity that isn’t afraid to be innovative,” said Conley, of Minneapolis.

The push to raise the minimum wage for county employees comes about a year after the start of a pandemic that has brought wide-ranging hardship. Greene noted that lower-wage workers have been hit hardest during this time as stagnant wages and high rent “keep upward mobility out of reach for our residents.”

A desire to combat those conditions “is the root of this proposal,” she said.

The plan was informed by the Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development’s Cost of Living Study, which found that a family of three in Hennepin County, with one parent working full-time and one half-time, would require a wage of $19.98 an hour to cover basic needs while working a combined 60 hours a week.

So the $20 minimum wage is a “necessary minimum move to advance our organization’s mission and values,” said District 2 Commissioner Irene Fernando, of Minneapolis.

A cost-of-living calculator covering every county in the state can be found at tinyurl.com/9ya3ft9h.

“We can do our part to begin to close a wage gap that touches lot of different areas,” such as the housing crisis, Conley said. According to the Hennepin County, about 30% of its households are overly burdened by housing costs, meaning they spend more than 30% of their income on a place to live.

Considering demographic-based income data, raising the minimum wage “touches a lot of different things that we value as a county and as a board,” including racial justice and public health, Conley said, offering the reminder that the County Board declared racism a public health crisis last year.

“We can do our part to begin to close a wage gap that touches lot of different areas,” she declared.

Hennepin County has identified seven domains of disparities between demographic groups: income, housing, health, employment, transportation, justice and education. It is important to consider “what income does to churn those gears,” County Administrator David Hough said.

“An hourly wage increase has the ability to immediately impact the well-being of county employees at the lower end of our pay scale,” Greene observed. “To me, this is about money in people’s pockets.”

With the county serving as a social safety net, its own employees shouldn’t have to be reliant on that aid, noted District 5 Commissioner Debbie Goettel, of Richfield.

And increasing the minimum wage for county workers also makes it more competitive in the hiring market, Goettel said. “We want to be a great place to work and this really gives us an edge on the market,” she said.

The increase will affect 480 county employees, according to Greene. It will come at an annual cost of $600,000, Hough said.

Though he declared his support for the measure, District 1 Commissioner Jeffrey Lunde brought a sense of caution to the conversation. “The tax payers are paying for this,” Lunde said, advocating for the county to carefully consider its other obligations.

“We’ve got housing needs,” he explained. “We have lots of things coming down the pike,” and federal funding that has helped pay for recent initiatives will eventually dry up.

He noted, however, that the proposed expenditure “isn’t a lot of money” compared to the $2 million a day the county spends on its payroll.

Hough offered assurance that the raises won’t hamstring the county fiscally. “I’m confident that this shouldn’t create any issues with our budget,” he said.

Goettel hopes county employees aren’t the only ones to benefit from the payroll measure. “I hope others do follow us,” she said.

This article was edited since it was originally posted to correct a quote from County Board Chair Marion Greene. Greene said she hoped employers in the region would view the county's push for a $20 internal minimum wage as an "invitation to do the same," not an "indication to do the same," as this article originally quoted Greene as saying.

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