Baltimore City Council Preliminarily Approves $15 Minimum Wage

Council members weigh in during Monday’s meeting (Photo by Justin Silberman)

Despite holding both a part-time and full-time job and working at least 55 hours per week, Joshua Graham still struggles to cover his basic living expenses and make ends meet.

By day, the 28-year-old West Baltimore resident works for a firm that provides security at the headquarters of T. Rowe Price at 100 E. Pratt St. By night and on weekends, Graham puts his skills to use for a food and beverage company as a banquet server.

It’s become an all-too-familiar way of life for Graham, who left City Hall on Monday night elated after the Baltimore City Council gave preliminary approval to a bill to raise the city’s minimum wage to $15 by 2022.

“All my life, I’ve been working two jobs and needed the income because minimum wage is really low in the city,” said Graham, who earns $13.50 per hour at his security job. “Making $15 per hour, maybe I could let go of my part-time job.”

Backed by a younger, more progressive council that features eight new members, the bill advanced by a 12-3 margin.

Councilwoman Mary Pat Clarke, a Democrat who represents the 14th District and is the bill’s lead sponsor, said she feels the legislation provides hope for some of Baltimore’s poorest workers.

“Today is the day I’ve waited for a long time on behalf of Baltimore City,” Clarke said. “Fifteen dollars is a minimal wage, really, for even a single person to survive on. But starting down the path to that goal is significant for bringing our city together economically.”

Currently, the minimum wage in Maryland is $8.75 and is scheduled to rise to $10.10 by July 2018. Many low-wage workers have argued that even with the increase, a $10.10 rate is unlivable.

“It’s hard to save sometimes, because I feel like I’m working paycheck to paycheck,” Graham said. “There are plenty of people I know who are on government assistance, so maybe if they can get a job where they make $15 an hour, they can get off those programs.”

The measure now advances to a final vote by the council, which could come as early as March 20. If the bill passes in the council, it will be sent to the desk of Mayor Catherine Pugh.

Pugh, who previously told the JT she prefers to see minimum-wage regulations discussed at the state or regional level, has yet to say whether she would sign off on the legislation or veto it. She has expressed reservations about how wage hikes could make Baltimore an island, potentially pushing businesses out to surrounding counties and scaring off new firms from wanting to invest in the city.

As the bill is currently constructed, low-wage employees 21 and older at businesses with more than 50 employees would earn $15 per hour by 2022. Companies with 50 or fewer employees would have until 2026 to implement the increase, which calls for hourly wages of the lowest-paid workers to rise 60 cents annually to reach the $15 mark.

Support for allowing individual counties and municipalities such as Baltimore to make these decisions for their constituents is strong among voters in the state.

A Goucher College poll released late last month found 63 percent of Marylanders feel that cities such as Baltimore should be allowed to set their own minimum wage laws, and 60 percent would like to see it done at the state level.

Girume Ashenafi, a representative for the Fight for $15 Coalition, said he is confident the bill has more than enough backing to pass.

“We’re very pleased we’ve been able to get to this point,” Ashenafi said. “As the saying goes, ‘Shoot for the moon, and even if you miss, you’ll be among the stars.’”

While there were enough votes generated on Monday to override a mayoral veto, not all members of the council are convinced it is a sound bill.

Eric Costello (D-District 11), Isaac “Yitzy” Schleifer (D-District 5) and Leon F. Pinkett III (D-District 7) proposed last-ditch efforts to amend the legislation before voting against it.

But all of their attempts failed to generate enough support from fellow council members for inclusion.

Schleifer, a small business owner who said he pays all of his employees at least $15 per hour, proposed exempting all small businesses and employees who work less than 20 hours per week. For Schleifer, he felt that would give those companies a better chance to get off the ground.

“We have a lot of startups in this town that want to get things moving,” Schleifer said to the council. “During those first few years, it’s tough to get things moving. The owners themselves start off making little to no money. I just fear that requiring any startup to have to pay this minimum wage would prevent them from starting those companies.”

Pinkett attempted to introduce a proposal to exempt businesses offering apprenticeships, and Costello tried to get a measure on the books slowing the law down if the economy suffered and the unemployment rate increased.

Zeke Cohen, a Democrat who represents the 1st District and is a former educator, told the JT after the council meeting that he fully supports the bill as is but would also like to see younger workers benefit.

“I know there are a lot of young men and women between 18 and 21 who support their families, which is why I would like to see them as a part of this,” Cohen said. “If you can vote or go to war, you should be able to make minimum wage. I believe the spirit of compromise is important, and I believe the goal of supporting working families and working people overrides my small misgivings with some elements of this bill. This sends a strong message about our city’s values.”

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