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The lowest-paid Hennepin County employees are poised for a pay bump if the County Board lifts the staff's minimum wage from $15 to $20 an hour.

The measure would affect about 450 employees, the county said, and could see those employees' earnings increase by as much as $10,000 annually. Workers who would see their wages increase include office specialists, food-service workers, community health workers and case-management assistants.

"It's about putting money in people's pockets," said County Board Chair Marion Greene, who introduced the proposal.

The $20 minimum wage would go into effect March 28 if the board gives its final approval Tuesday.

The wage increase would cost the county $430,000 in 2021 and about $2.2 million over four years. Departments would draw that money from their budgets.

County Administrator David Hough said the budget hit is relatively minor in the context of county expenses; the current daily payroll is about $2 million for all Hennepin County employees.

In discussion of the minimum wage increase during a committee meeting this week, multiple board members noted the county oversees social services and works to tackle affordable housing issues. The raise, they argued, would keep their own employees who might otherwise need those services on more sound financial footing.

They also noted that many people who hold the minimum wage jobs within the county are people of color.

"We as an organization, of course, like to make sure that we are sort of putting our money where our mouth is," Greene said in an interview Friday. "While I don't think this is a panacea, this will do something to address equity within our organization."

Commissioner Jeffrey Lunde supported the measure when it was approved unanimously in the committee meeting this week. He said it is important to pay people the right wage that reflects their value. But he added it is important to look at the long-term costs, especially once COVID relief money from the state and federal government runs out over the next few years.

"We are making a lot of promises and we need to be prepared for how we pay for those promises, which I believe we are," Lunde said Friday.

Hennepin County Chief Human Resources Officer Michael Rossman said the proposal is also a smart business move because they believe the increase will help improve retention of county employees. Employees will be able to view their positions as not just steppingstones to working elsewhere, he said, but as the beginning of good careers in the county system.

"We already draw a lot of great people in because they just want to work and do good for people," Rossman said. "Let's say that's your love, and then we're able to pay you enough from the beginning to make enough of a living about it — surefire way to keep the best people."

In addition to helping county employees, Greene said she hopes the increase will serve as an invitation for other area employers to increase their minimum hourly wages. She said she has talked to people in other county government offices about the wage increase and is cautiously optimistic others will follow their lead.

"We're not able to tell other organizations in the private sector what to do but I do know I hear their leaders talking about equity in our region," Greene said. "This is a very measurable way to advance equity in the region."

Minneapolis and St. Paul have both raised the minimum wage in recent years, not just for city employees, but for all businesses citywide.

Those initiatives, cheered by workers' groups, sparked outcry from some businesses and a court battle in Minneapolis. The gradual increases will bring the citywide wage to $15 per hour by 2024 in Minneapolis and by 2027 in St. Paul.

The Hennepin County proposal would be the first increase for its minimum wage staff in five years.

The measure also calls for an annual review of the minimum wage and adjustments when the data, like employment market statistics, demonstrates that an increase is needed.

"One of the challenges of raising the minimum wage in various venues, whether it's at the state or the federal level or for Hennepin County employees, is that unless we somehow link it to annual estimated regional cost of living or other factors like that, the wage remains stagnant," Greene said. "I really wanted to come up with a way that would give this more longevity."

Peter Warren • 612-673-1713

Correction: A previous version of this story mischaracterized Hennepin County’s $2 million payroll for its employees. That number is a daily payroll.