A coalition of religious leaders joined Gov. Martin O'Malley and Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake at a rally Monday to call for a higher minimum wage, saying Maryland lawmakers shouldn't wait for the economy to make a full recovery before taking action.
Rabbi Daniel Cotzin Burg of Beth Am Synagogue and Jews United for Justice said the Book of Proverbs calls on the faithful to "speak up" and "seek economic justice" for all. He told the crowd of more than 200 that contributing to charitable causes isn't enough.
"Helping others to become self sufficient is the greatest aspiration for a society," Burg told the crowd at St. Vincent de Paul Church in Baltimore. Burg, who lives and works in Reservoir Hill, added, "I look around my neighborhood, and I see friends, I see neighbors who are struggling, some of them working multiple jobs, single moms raising kids."
O'Malley has made raising the state's minimum wage to $10.10 an hour by 2016 a top priority for his final legislative session, and has said the state also should tie future increases to inflation. Under his proposal, workers who earn tips at restaurants and bars would also see higher wages.
Twenty-one states and Washington have a minimum wage that is higher than the federal $7.25 per hour standard, which is Maryland's minimum wage. That amounts to roughly $15,000 a year for a full time worker.
Critics of the proposal say forcing businesses to increase pay would cause them to lay off workers and make it harder to compete — especially with neighboring states that allow a lower rate.
But advocates argue that raising the minimum wage would create an estimated 1,600 jobs and boost incomes for more than 400,000 working Marylanders. On Monday, the governor said increasing wages will create a stronger Maryland.
"Our economy does best when our middle class is actually growing and thriving," O'Malley said.
Rawlings-Blake and U.S. Sen. Ben Cardin made a similar call to action. "This is not a handout; this is about giving people what they deserve," Rawlings-Blake told the group.
Auxiliary Bishop Denis J. Madden of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Baltimore said everyone should have an opportunity through "honest labor to make a just wage."
"Now is the time for the government, for Maryland to take action," Madden said.
Kevin Wheeler, a bartender at a restaurant at Baltimore-Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport, said he has trouble living off his wage of $4.65 an hour plus tips. Finding another job isn't always an option for low-wage workers, he said.
"The norm is lower-wage jobs that look at people as being disposable," said Wheeler, who lives in Baltimore. "Turnover is really, really high because companies can see the profits they can get by keeping the wages low and having no benefits at all."
After the rally, reporters pressed the governor on his potential 2016 White House bid. O'Malley said he is "weighing what's best for our country." He also indicated that his decision couldn't wait for Hillary Clinton to choose whether she'll seek the Democratic nomination for president.
"No one ever goes down this road, I would hope, without giving it a lot of consideration and a lot of preparation and a lot of thought work," O'Malley said. "That's what I am doing."