In a surprise reversal on his previous stance, D.C. Superior Court Judge Maurice Ross ruled April 4 to uphold the D.C. Board of Elections’ approval of an increased minimum wage measure last July, greenlighting activists’ efforts for a $15-per-hour minimum wage to be put to vote in a District ballot this November.
The decision marks a victory for advocates pushing for an increase to $15 from the current $10.50 minimum wage. Proponents of the Fair Minimum Wage Act of 2016” must now collect signatures from 5 percent of the city’s registered voters, including 5 percent each of five different wards, by July in order to include the issue on the ballot.
If approved by public vote on the ballot, which is scheduled to take place Nov. 8, the initiative would increase the District’s minimum wage annually until it reaches $15 in 2020. Following this, the wage would rise depending on changes to the cost of living.
Co-Chair of the D.C. for $15 campaign and Director of D.C.’s Working Families Party Delvone Michael said the campaign had garnered roughly 200 of the 25,000 required signatures as of April 8.
Michael expressed confidence in the feasibility of passing the initiative, citing a Washington City Paper January 2016 poll indicating that roughly 87 percent of the D.C. electorate supports a minimum wage hike to $15.
“D.C. is one of the most expensive cities in the country to live in and people shouldn’t work 40 hours and not afford to live in that same city,” Michael said. “The average cost of an apartment in D.C. is $2,000 a month. That means even if you make $15 an hour right now, there are lots of places that won’t even take your application for an apartment. We’re a better city than that, and we can do better.”
Michael estimated that the measure would benefit roughly 100,000 workers currently earning below a living wage.
“I think the leading economists agree that $15 is safe, that it would not have an adverse impact on the economy and actually helps spur the economy,” Michael said. “D.C. might be the capital of the nation, but without a living wage it cannot be the capital of equality.”
The judge’s decision on April 4 came after plaintiff Harry Wingo, then-D.C. Chamber of Commerce president who resigned in December, filed a lawsuit against the BOE last August alleging the ballot measure was invalid because two of the three board members’ three-year term limits had already expired when they approved the initiative.
Although Ross’ ruling this January invalidating the ballot initiative indicated that he favored Wingo’s case, the judge found in last week’s decision that there is legal precedent for board member holdovers to act until their successors are nominated.
Local attorneys Michael Bennett and Michael Gill replaced the two members with expired terms and were sworn in to the board after receiving D.C. Council approval April 5.
According to BOE spokesperson Margarita Mikhaylova, the initial lawsuit focused on the board members’ term lengths but in reality took issue with the substance of the initiative itself.
“We have all new members on the new board, so the case is really a moot point,” Mikhaylova said. “The case was not really brought because of board members’ terms, but because of the language of the ballot measure.”
D.C. Courts Media Director Leah Gurowitz said the D.C. Code of Judicial Conduct prohibits statements on pending cases.
Wingo declined The Hoya’s request for comment.
Georgetown law’s Center of Poverty and Inequality Director Peter Edelman echoed this sentiment, emphasizing the benefits of an increased minimum wage.
“If [the question is] whether I think that’s too high and will cause a big loss in jobs, the answer is no,” Edelman wrote in an email to The Hoya. “With few exceptions, economists believe that an increase of this amount will not have substantial negative effects.”
The wage hike follows years of incremental minimum wage increases in D.C. Beginning July 1, 2014, the District’s minimum wage jumped from $8.25 to $9.50 after the D.C. Council passed the Minimum Wage Amendment Act of 2013. The law established a series of $1 rate increases to be enacted on July 1 each year until the cap of $11.50 is reached later this year.
Mayor Muriel Bowser (D) also expressed support for raising the city’s minimum wage to $15 by 2020 in her state of the District address March 22.
“With grocery bills, childcare and eldercare, transportation costs and the other expenses of everyday life, an hourly minimum wage of 11 dollars and 50 cents will only stretch so far,” Bowser said in the address. “Low wages create an invisible ceiling that prevents working families from truly getting a fair shot.”