Hennepin County on Tuesday became the only public-sector government organization in the Midwest to offer its employees a minimum wage of $20 an hour.

The new wage will affect 480 employees that include office specialists, food-service workers, community health workers and case-management assistants. The increase, which could bump an employee's annual salary as much as $10,000, starts March 28.

"It's really humbling to know that something we are doing has other large organizations watching," Commissioner Angela Conley said after the unanimous vote. "Hopefully they will follow suit."

The wage increase will cost the county $2.2 million over four years, a minuscule slice of its 2021 budget of $2.2 billion. Departments will draw that money from their budgets.

Commissioner Chris LaTondresse said his office has received a few calls that the wage raise is a poor use of taxpayer money, particularly at time when people lost jobs during the pandemic.

"It's a better use of taxpayer dollars to move residents from poverty and public assistance to opportunity and self-sufficiency. That makes all of us stronger," he said. "If every Hennepin County resident made at least $20 per hour we would see a significant reduction to poverty and reliance on costly public assistance programs."

The county raised its minimum wage to $15 an hour five years ago. The state's current minimum wage is $10.08 an hour for large employers and $8.21 an hour for other businesses.

Camila Valenzuela has worked for the county for three years as a breastfeeding counselor for low-income mothers. She said her husband and two small children definitely appreciate the raise because her job is only 10 hours a week with no benefits.

"I had a peer counselor with my first child, so I take a lot of pride in my work and support my moms," she said.

Valenzuela, 31, speaks Spanish, which often makes her the only contact her clients feel comfortable talking to about breastfeeding and other maternity issues. Each case offers a different mothering scenario, and she works with the women to make sure they get connected to the resources they need.

"To supplement my income, I work as a doula, dog groomer and doing handicrafts and sewing," she said. "The raise brings hope that our roles are really being valued. I'm sure all the other counselors are very happy about the new wage."

Minneapolis and St. Paul have both raised the minimum wage in recent years for all businesses citywide. Minneapolis will increase to $15 per hour by 2024 and St. Paul by 2027.

Board chairwoman Marion Greene proposed the new minimum wage hike. It puts money in the pockets of front-line workers, usually people of color, women and residents with disabilities, she said.

She and Commissioner Jeff Lunde are looking into whether the wage creates pay compression, which means a person with more experience may be making a little more than a new person receiving the $20 minimum wage.

"We will have supervisors work with human resources and adjust salaries based on job performance and other factors," she said.

The decision to raise the wage was based on research that showed it takes at least $20 an hour to live in the metro area, but that salary doesn't include extras such as the internet, said Commissioner Irene Fernando.

Conley ran for commissioner in 2018 as a single mother working for the county for about $20 an hour, she said.

"I hear from employees all the time how hard it is to make ends meet, and this was before the pandemic," she said. "People deserve to live and be able to pay expenses that supports their well-being."

Nearly 40% of the entry-level employees who work for Hennepin County are people of color. The pay increase reflects the county's continuing goal of reducing racial disparities and the wealth gap, she said.

"In five years, maybe we will look at raising the minimum wage to $25 an hour," she said.

David Chanen • 612-673-4465