For the second straight year, Baltimore City Councilwoman Mary Pat Clarke is making a concerted effort to incrementally raise the city’s minimum wage over the next few years.
Clarke, a Democrat who represents the 14th District, introduced a bill on Monday that would pave the way for low-wage employees 21 and older at businesses with more than 50 employees to earn $15 per hour by 2022. It would also call for businesses with fewer than 50 employees to do the same by 2026, increasing hourly wages for their lowest-paid workers by 60 cents annually to reach the $15 mark. The increase would not apply to tipped workers, who earn $3.63 per hour.
Clarke, the bill’s lead sponsor, said the legislation has 10 co-sponsors and is fully backed by City Council President Bernard C. “Jack” Young.
“Baltimore cannot rest until the majority population who lives, works and has endured here is empowered to share fairly in the progress their work has been essential in helping the city achieve,” Clarke said.
The city will follow the state’s minimum wage schedule until 2018, affording all employers a year-and-a-half to prepare for the wage increases. Current minimum wage in Maryland is $8.75 and is set to rise to $10.10 by July 2018.
Last year, a similar piece of legislation sponsored by Clarke fell short after meticulous rounds of revisions and debate.
Young, who was one of the most outspoken critics of last year’s bill, said this year’s version is a “compromise” to Clarke’s previous efforts.
“This is a compromise I feel comfortable with. I wish we could have gotten this done the last go-around,” Young said. “I really do. A lot of people thought I was against $15. I’ve never been against it, but I felt Baltimore shouldn’t be the hole in the doughnut. I was willing to say, ‘Hey, if [the state] wants us to be leading the state, then we will lead them.’”
Like the previous bill, the current bill has created contentious debate in the working community.
Donald C. Fry, president and CEO of the Greater Baltimore Committee, said in a prepared statement that the legislation would make Baltimore an “island” city surrounded by other jurisdictions that have no plans to raise the minimum wage.
“If passed, this bill would place Baltimore City at a serious competitive disadvantage,” Fry said. “It has the potential to result in job losses and businesses leaving the city.”
He noted testimony presented to the council last year from more than 30 business owners, employees, disability service providers and others who argued a $15 minimum wage would hurt their businesses and limit job creation.
But low-wage workers and advocate groups — such as 32BJ Service Employees International Union (SEIU), the largest property services union in the country — argue that people living and working in the city can’t survive on the current minimum wage.
Frances Smith, 61, who lives in West Baltimore and is a member of the Baltimore 32BJ SEIU chapter, works as a housekeeper at 100 E. Pratt St. and earns $13.20 per hour.
Smith said an additional $1.80 per hour “would go a long way” toward helping her current living situation.
“I’m in an abandoned neighborhood, taking care of my grandson, and I want to be able to move,” Smith said. “I can’t afford to move out right now, but if I got the $15 minimum wage, then maybe I could afford to get out. It’s tough to make it and pay my bills on what I’m bringing in now.”
Cohen, a Democrat who represents the 1st District, said he will continue to listen to the opinions of his constituents as the bill moves forward.
“This is a challenging vote for me in my district,” Cohen said. “We do not take this lightly. This is a serious responsibility, and we fully understand that.”
Despite strong support for the bill, there are some council members who have yet to say if they back it.
Councilman Isaac “Yitzy” Schleifer, a Democrat who represents the 5th District, through a text message declined to comment, saying, “I’m sure there will be many opportunities to discuss this in the coming months.”
A council committee is scheduled to hold a public hearing for the legislation on March 1.
The bill needs a simple majority of eight votes to pass in the council, but it would need 12 to override a mayoral veto.
Mayor Catherine Pugh has yet to say whether she would sign the bill into law if it passes a council vote. She told the JT last week she prefers to see minimum wage regulations discussed at the state or regional level.
Clarke said her legislation would affect roughly 98,000 workers, or about 27 percent of Baltimore’s workforce.
She joined supporters in Annapolis on Tuesday to urge General Assembly legislators to defeat a bill that would prevent the city and other jurisdictions from setting their own minimum wage laws.
A hearing for that bill, sponsored by chairman of the Economic Matters Committee Del. Derrick Leon Davis (D-District 25), is scheduled for Tuesday.
“Cities are leading all over the nation … in terms of taking action and coming together to take care of one another,” Clarke said. “That’s what people say we need to do in this environment, and that’s what we plan to do with in this Baltimore City Council.”