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Montgomery lawmakers approve protections for janitors, cafeteria workers

Montgomery County Council Member Valerie Ervin in session.   Greg Whitesell/Examiner.
Valerie Ervin, the bill's lead sponsor

Janitors and cafeteria workers in Montgomery County have more job security after the County Council on Tuesday narrowly passed a contentious bill guaranteeing low-wage workers 90 days of employment after their employer's contract ends.

The measure requires a company that wins a bid to replace a contractor providing services like security, janitorial work, building maintenance or food preparation to hire for 90 days the employees of the outgoing contractor to perform the same work. The new contractor can hire fewer than the total number of affected employees if it determines it doesn't need all of them to do the work, but it has to maintain a list in preferential order of those not hired and do any future hiring from that list until every affected employee has been offered a job.

The requirements apply to contracts with private schools, hospitals, nursing homes, museums, convention centers, airports, music halls, arenas and office buildings. Though an earlier version of the bill also applied to homeowners associations, that was changed Tuesday.

The bill passed 5-4, with Council President Roger Berliner, D-Bethesda, and council members Phil Andrews, D-Gaithersburg/Rockville, George Leventhal, D-at large, and Nancy Floreen, D-at large, opposing.

County Executive Ike Leggett is expected to sign the bill into law.

Supporters of the bill, including multiple labor unions, heralded the measure as a source of modest protections for a group of low-wage workers who are often unable to support their families as a result of a frequently fluctuating market.

"As a Democrat, I believe as President Obama does that vilifying the American worker, undermining unions and arguing that everyone should fend for themselves is not an American value," said Councilwoman Valerie Ervin, D-Silver Spring, and the bill's lead sponsor.

But opponents of the bill, who include much of the county's business community, argue it is anti-business and prioritizes the needs of some workers -- namely the members of the Service Employees International Union's 32BJ, which represents building service workers and lobbied heavily for the bill -- over others.

"This bill does not create jobs. It doesn't even protect jobs. It just decides which individuals get the jobs," said Marilyn Balcombe, president and CEO of the Gaithersburg-Germantown Chamber of Commerce. "It chips away at businesses' philosophical right to hire who they want to hire."

It also is an example of the government overstepping its authority, Andrews said. "It gets into micromanaging decisions that the county should not micromanage."

Instead, the county should be trying to bring more jobs to the county, which would benefit everyone, including the low-wage workers, said Montgomery County Chamber of Commerce President and CEO Gigi Godwin after the council's vote. "I think we're just missing the bigger picture."