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New effort to raise Baltimore's minimum wage to $15 begins

A new City Council takes office next week. They'll soon consider raising Baltimore's minimum wage.

With eight new Democrats joining Baltimore's City Council in December, proponents of a $15 hourly minimum wage relaunched their campaign to hike wages for the city's low-income workers.

After failing by one vote in August, advocates for a higher minimum wage feel more confident now that three council members who opposed the measure are being replaced by new members who've pledged to support the increase.

The advocates and the bill's lead sponsor, Councilwoman Mary Pat Clarke of North Baltimore, held a rally at the Blue Point Healthcare Center to kick off the new effort. Dozens of low-wage workers and supporters attended.

"We have airport workers, heath care workers, home care workers who are all going to let our elected officials know that we demand $15 an hour," said Ricarra Jones, a political organizer for a local health care union. "Last year our bill in Baltimore had a delay, but this year we're back at it. We have a plan to add Baltimore to the growing list of the cities and states that have increased the minimum wage to $15 an hour."

The rally came amid a national effort for a $15 hourly minimum wage. Workers across the country on Tuesday engaged in what advocates called "their most disruptive protests" at airports, fast-food restaurants and other businesses.

Dozens of people were arrested as they participated in protests in cities including Chicago, Detroit, Houston, Los Angeles, Minneapolis and New York. In many cities the protesters blocked busy intersections. There were no arrests or disruptive protests in Baltimore.

Democratic politicians, including Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont, Kirsten Gillibrand of New York and Sen.-elect Kamala Harris of California, sent out messages of support on Twitter.

"Not long ago the establishment told us that a $15 minimum wage was unthinkable. But a grassroots movement refused to take no for an answer," Sanders wrote.

In Baltimore, Jalisha Washington, a 26-year-old cook and mother of two, said it would change her life "drastically" if her wage was increased a few dollars an hour.

"Twelve dollars an hour is not making ends meet at home," she said. "It's not."

With an influx of new, younger City Council members who take office next month, Clarke said no persuasion is needed to get some of them to join up with supporters already on the council.

"It's been part of their campaigns to be supportive of a $15 minimum wage," Clarke said. "They've been campaigning on it. They don't need to be persuaded."

The incoming members include John Bullock of West Baltimore, Zeke Cohen of Southeast Baltimore and Shannon Sneed of East Baltimore, all of whom replace members who opposed the increase.

The $15 minimum wage bill that Clarke plans to introduced in January proposes to gradually raise the minimum wage in Baltimore to $15 an hour by July 2022 and tie it afterward to the cost of living, so that it will continue to increase. The legislation also calls for increased pay for tipped workers, who currently earn $3.63 per hour.

In August, supporters of the proposal failed to muster the votes needed for passage on the 15-member council, which instead voted 8-6 with one abstention to return the bill to committee and an uncertain future.

Clarke pledged at the time to look for the additional votes needed to pass the measure, even if that meant waiting until a new council takes office.

"I said that we would bring it back and that's what we're planning to do," Clarke said Tuesday.

City Council Vice President Edward Reisinger said he plans to support the legislation again.

"There's a lot of city employees who are working two, some of them three jobs, and in corporations and companies [where] the CEO, COO and CFO are making millions," he said. "I think it's the right thing to do."

Advocates estimate nearly 100,000 workers — about 27 percent of workers in Baltimore — would benefit from the law. They argue a higher wage would help address entrenched poverty in Baltimore, where about a quarter of residents live below the poverty line and more than a fifth of households receive food stamps.

"Society would save money, because families would be independent," Clarke said. "It's just wrong for people who work full time to have to come home from work and stand in line at a pantry. Our whole economy improves when there's more spendable cash around."

The minimum wage in Maryland is currently $8.75 per hour, higher than the federal rate of $7.25. The Maryland General Assembly passed a bill during its 2014 session that will raise the state's minimum wage to $10.10 an hour by 2018.

City Council President Bernard C. "Jack" Young has said he doesn't believe the council should vote for a bill that raises the city's minimum wage any higher than $11.50 per hour. He and other opponents say they worry about how it would affect Baltimore's economy, citing surveys of small businesses who say they would close or move if the wage is raised.

In a survey of 322 Baltimore businesses by the Baltimore Development Corp., 97 said the bill would cause them to reduce hours for workers, 69 said they would lay off workers, 56 said they would close and 33 said they would move out of Baltimore.

Young and other opponents have argued that raising Baltimore's minimum wage doesn't make fiscal sense when suburban counties will continue to have a lower minimum wage. Mayor-elect Catherine E. Pugh has said she would prefer if counties had a "consistent" minimum wage across the state.

Lester Davis, a spokesman for Young, declined to comment Tuesday. Pugh did not respond to a request for comment.

Baltimore is the latest jurisdiction nationwide to consider a minimum-wage increase. The District of Columbia, Seattle and San Francisco all have approved increases to $15 an hour.

Baltimore Sun reporter Yvonne Wenger and the Associated Press contributed to this article.

lbroadwater@baltsun.com

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