All Hennepin County employees now earn at least $20 an hour after a minimum-wage increase gained approval March 23.

In unanimously voting for the wage hike, county commissioners highlighted how the new earnings floor will help people from marginalized demographics while serving as an example for other larger employers in the region.

“Black and Indigenous people, people of color, residents with disabilities and women stand to benefit the most from this increase,” said Hennepin County Board Chair Marion Greene, who led the initiative.

Forty percent of the county’s front-line employees, the ones most affected by the increase, are “black, indigenous or brown folks,” noted District 4 Commissioner Angela Conley, of Minneapolis.

The new minimum wage, which takes effect March 28 and represents a $5 increase over the previous minimum, will apply to 480 of the county’s nearly 9,000 employees, according to County Administrator David Hough. It is expected to cost the county $600,000 per year in additional wages, while $2 million per day is spent on the payroll, Hough has noted.

According to a county spokesperson, the jobs affected by the increase include office specialists, associate librarians, service center representatives, case management assistants, food service workers and community health workers.

Greene, who represents District 3 and is a St. Louis Park resident, is among commissioners who hope the county won’t be the only employer in the region to give its least-compensated staff members a pay increase.

“The wage for county employees will help the region make strides towards wage equity,” she said, “towards an economy where upward economic mobility is possible, especially in our region, which has not been exempt from the national trend of increasing cost of living while wages remain stagnant.”

With that in mind, District 5 Commissioner Debbie, of Richfield, issued a challenge to other large employers.

“Let’s see who has the courage to do something like this for their community and make sure when you hire somebody for a job that it’s a living-wage job,” Goettel said.

Those employers, she explained, have the opportunity “to lower the tax burden for all of our residents by moving more of our residents off of public assistance by giving them a living wage.”

That level of pay means removing employees from conditions in which “they’re getting other money from the county,” said District 1 Commissioner Jeff Lunde, of Brooklyn Park. “Paying someone a low wage and having them have to apply for assistance is paying them in two ways.”

The decision to set the new wage floor at $20 an hour was not arbitrary, said District 2 Commissioner Irene Fernando, of Minneapolis.

She noted that according to the state’s cost-of-living calculator – which can be found at tinyurl.com/9ya3ft9h – a family of three in Hennepin County, with one parent working full-time and one half-time, requires $19.98 an hour to get by.

Addressing objections

While support for the minimum wage increase was unanimous on the board, it was not so among its constituents.

“I got a lot of emails actually saying we don’t want to see our tax dollars going to 20 dollars an hour,” Goettel said. “I’m not so sure those constituents necessarily know what it takes to really live.”

District 6 Commissioner Chris LaTondresse, of Hopkins, noted that some constituents called the increase “tone-deaf,” considering all the people who are not employed by the county but are also suffering financially. LaTondresse called that objection “a little bit surprising, because my thought would be, actually, our governments are stepping up in all sorts of ways. … And it’s our responsibility to step up in these ways any time we have an opportunity to serve and support our residents.”

LaTondresse pictured a world where every Hennepin County resident makes at least $20 an hour, a scenario in which “we would see a significant reduction to poverty and reliance on costly public assistance programs that ultimately the taxpayers have to pay for one way or another.”

Another concern voiced by constituents, however, is the phenomenon of wage compression that could result from the increase, Lunde noted. Wage compression occurs when the gap in pay between jobs of various skill and experience requirements becomes smaller, bringing potential complications to payroll and staffing dynamics.

County supervisors will work with their human resources department to address pay equity issues, which will be evaluated on an individual basis during performance reviews as salaries are adjusted as appropriate, according to Greene.

Although commissioners discussed how the new minimum could affect employees system-wide, they spent most of their March 23 meeting considering those at the low end of the pay spectrum. No one working full-time should have to rely on government assistance, insisted District 7 Commissioner Kevin Anderson, of Maple Grove.

“And if we can help people be self-sufficient by paying them a living wage, we absolutely should be doing that,” Anderson said. “That goes for Hennepin County as an employer, but it goes across the board. All employees should be able to be self-sufficient and not rely on assistance if they are working a full-time job.”

Five years removed from the last time they increased their employees’ minimum wage, county officials will now watch for reverberations.

“We were a leader when we put $15 an hour,” Goettel said. “We’re a leader at 20. Let’s see who will follow.”

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