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A majority of City Council members say they support a $15 minimum wage in Baltimore

Baltimore Council President Bernard C. "Jack" Young throws his support behind $15 minimum wage.

A majority of the City Council — including Council President Bernard C. "Jack" Young — said Monday they are backing a $15 minimum wage for workers in Baltimore.

Asked by The Baltimore Sun, Young and 10 others on the 15-member council said they support legislation that would raise wages for the lowest-paid workers in the city. A similar proposal was narrowly defeated without Young's support last year.

Five of the eight new council members elected in November are backing the bill, tipping the scales in favor of passage.

Some businesses and business advocacy groups are voicing their opposition to the proposal, saying it could cause employers to fire workers or move out of the city. Mayor Catherine Pugh did not take a position on the proposal, but urged caution Monday.

Pugh asked council members to evaluate how the legislation would affect the city's unemployed, expressing concern the bill could limit job opportunities for people entering the workforce.

"We need to get people working," Pugh told council members at their weekly lunch work session. "We don't need any impediments to getting people to work. I think we all want a living wage — there is no question in my heart about that. Have we given consideration to how this would affect our young people?"

Under the measure, low-wage employees 21 and older at large companies would receive incremental raises until the minimum wage reached $15 an hour in 2022. Small businesses with fewer than 50 employees would have until 2026 to pay their workers at that rate.

The minimum wage in Maryland is $8.75 per hour. It is scheduled to rise to $10.10 an hour by 2018.

Last year, Young argued the city should not raise the minimum wage higher than $11.50 an hour. Anything higher than that could hurt Baltimore's economy, he said.

But he explained Monday that he worked with the bill's supporters over recent months to flesh out a deal that addresses some of his concerns. The new bill gives small businesses more time to comply and does not require companies to pay young workers or those earning tips a higher wage.

"I know a lot of people are still not happy, but a compromise is a compromise," Young said. "It's going to have some unintended consequences, but I am willing to sacrifice that to get this compromise bill done."

Under the bill, the city's minimum wage would follow the state's minimum wage schedule for the next year and a half, and then continue to increase to $15. Cost of living increases would follow.

For small businesses, wages for their lowest-paid workers would have to increase 60 cents an hour annually, reaching $15 an hour in a decade.

There are other exceptions. Some mentally and physically disabled workers could be paid less than the minimum. And the Maryland Zoo would be exempt from the wage requirement.

The bill was introduced during Monday night's council meeting. Supporters need a simple majority of eight votes to pass the bill, but would need 12 to override a mayoral veto.

A council committee will hold a public hearing on the bill March 1.

Russ C. Causey, CEO of CMD Outsourcing Solutions Inc. on Pratt Street, said a $15 minimum wage would lead him to move his customer service call center out of the city. The center employs between 120 and 150 workers, he said. He said his business has operated in the city since it was founded nearly 20 years ago.

Causey said he pays an average of $13.20 an hour, which he says is well ahead of his competitors. He said the proposed minimum wage increase would cost his company $400,000 a year.

"Our choosing to pay more has put us at the very edge of competitive disadvantage," he wrote in an email to his council representative, Eric Costello of South Baltimore. "Most of CMD's staff are city residents who come to CMD with limited work experience and skills.

"CMD should be the type of business the City and City Council should embrace.We provide good jobs that lead to better jobs for many citizens of our City.Please don't force us to leave."

Business advocacy groups also outlined grave consequences.

Cailey Locklair Tolle, president of the Maryland Retailers Association, said businesses will be forced to fire workers, cut back their hours or leave Baltimore. She said the legislation also would hurt the cash-strapped city government, which would have to devote more of its resources to paying workers.

"This is not the right thing for Baltimore City to do," Tolle said. "Decisions like this have to be made on the state level."

Donald C. Fry, president and CEO of the pro-business Greater Baltimore Committee, said the legislation would make the city an " 'island' 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 in a statement. "It has the potential to result in job losses and businesses leaving the city."

He pointed to testimony given to the council last year from more than 30 business owners, employees, disability service providers and others who said a $15 minimum wage would harm their businesses and stifle job creation.

Councilwoman Mary Pat Clarke of North Baltimore, the bill's lead sponsor, called the increase modest, gradual, reasonable and imperative. She noted that Baltimore leads the state in economic growth.

"It's time to share the wealth," Clarke said, adding that an estimated 100,000 workers — or about 27 percent of Baltimore employees — would benefit from a $15 minimum wage.

Clarke, Young and others are planning to talk to council leaders in other large Maryland jurisdictions, such as Prince George's and Montgomery counties, to encourage them to introduce similar legislation. Montgomery County Executive Isiah Leggett vetoed a bill last month that would have increased the minimum wage there to $15 an hour.

Supporters also are planning to lobby legislators in the General Assembly to defeat a bill that would block Baltimore and other cities and counties from raising the minimum wage above what has been approved by the state. A hearing on the bill is set for 1 p.m. Tuesday.

The previous legislation in Baltimore failed by one vote in August, but the election of eight new council members in November gave the bill new life.

Polled by The Sun Monday, 11 council members said they supported the measure while four expressed reservations: Councilmen Eric T. Costello, Leon F. Pinkett III, Isaac "Yitzy" Schleifer and Robert Stokes Sr.

Costello said he hasn't taken a position on the new bill. He opposed the effort last year on the grounds it could drive businesses out of Baltimore.

Now, "it's totally different bill," Costello said. "I'm still trying to compare it to what we had last term."

Stokes said he worries the legislation could backfire on the working poor. He expressed concern some could lose food stamps and subsidized housing if they earned more money, but still be unable to provide for their families on $15 an hour.

"Sometimes you put people in more poverty if you're not looking at the underlying issues."

Pinkett said the city already has a high tax rate and few grocery stores. He said he is worried that hiking the minimum wage could hurt job growth and efforts to attract fresh food options.

"I support increasing the minimum wage but am not convinced that this legislation is the best means to achieving that goal," he said.

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