Baltimore's City Council voted overwhelmingly Monday to raise the city's minimum wage to $15 an hour by 2022.
With the 11-3 vote, council members brushed aside the fiscal warnings by Mayor Catherine Pugh's finance department and joined more affluent cities such as Seattle, San Francisco and Washington, which have passed similar measures.
"I understand how people have objections," said City Councilwoman Mary Pat Clarke, the bill's lead sponsor. "This is not easy. Many people have to sacrifice here for this."
But Clarke said the legislation was a first step toward "correcting decades of injustice" for Baltimore's lowest-wage workers. "People are working one job, two jobs, three jobs and still often are not able to make ends meet for their families," she said.
The council's vote sends the matter to Pugh, who has yet to say whether she will sign or veto the bill. Twelve votes would be needed to override a mayoral veto. Councilman Brandon Scott, a supporter of the $15-an-hour legislation, was on an overseas trip.
Pugh's spokesman, Anthony McCarthy, said Monday she would make a decision "within the next few days."
He called Pugh "one of the strongest voices for working families," but said she needs to balance her desire to raise wages with the financial implications of doing so.
"Mayor Pugh will make her decision based on what she believes is in the best interests of Baltimore residents, not what is the most popular decision or most expedient," McCarthy said.
He noted that the city's budget is already stretched due in part to high police overtime costs, a Department of Justice consent decree for police reform and the needs of the city's public school system, which faces a $130 million deficit.
Baltimore finance officials have warned that raising the minimum wage to $15 an hour would cost taxpayers $115 million over four years because some city workers' wages would increase. They also warned it could cost the city hundreds of jobs because businesses would move or close.
The influential pro-business Greater Baltimore Committee immediately urged Pugh to veto the bill.
Donald C. Fry, the group's president, said he was "very disappointed in the City Council's decision to increase the minimum wage despite the concerns expressed by the business community, cultural institutions, nonprofit organizations, and city government agencies."
Fry noted a $15 hourly minimum wage would be nearly $5 an hour higher than in surrounding counties.
"This legislation will place Baltimore at a serious competitive disadvantage, resulting in lost jobs, additional costs to city businesses, and employers leaving the city," he said.
Some business leaders had a starkly different view.
Andrew Buerger, co-founder of B'More Organic, cheered the decision and said it's "only fair" that business owners pay their employees wages that allow them to escape poverty.
"It's incumbent on the business owners to pay somebody a living wage," he said. "We're not afraid to do that. We don't think it hurts our business."
Ricarra Jones, a political organizer for a local health care union, said a coalition of advocates is pushing Pugh to sign the bill. Pugh pledged to back the measure during her campaign, and higher wages for workers should lead to higher income tax revenue, more home ownership and better graduation rates, she said.
"We hope that she sticks to that promise," Jones said. "A lot of research shows there's going to be a positive financial impact."
The passage of the bill was made possible by November's election of eight new City Council members after a similar proposal was rejected only months prior. Six of the eight new Democrats voted in favor of the bill.
Joining Clarke in supporting the bill were City Council President Bernard C. "Jack" Young, Vice President Sharon Green Middleton and council members Zeke Cohen, Ryan Dorsey, Bill Henry, Kristerfer Burnett, John Bullock, Edward Reisinger, Robert Stokes and Shannon Sneed.
Dorsey, one of the newly elected members, said the legislation represents "integrity in business."
"A $15 minimum wage is a step in the right direction, offering hope for true economic mobility," he said.
Opposing the bill were council members Isaac "Yitzy" Schleifer, Leon Pinkett and Eric Costello.
Schleifer, another freshman on the council, said there were "many challenges" with the bill, including a "negative impact" on small businesses, which he said would lose customers to county stores that wouldn't have to raise prices to keep up with higher wages.
"For most of my residents, it is easier to shop in the county stores than the city stores. By making Baltimore City uncompetitive to those stores just two or three blocks up in the county would prevent my constituents from shopping at their local city-owned stores," he said.
The minimum wage in Maryland is $8.75 per hour and set to rise to $10.10 an hour by 2018. Under Clarke's bill, Baltimore's wage would rise with Maryland's for the next two years, but then continue to rise to $15.
The bill contains several exemptions. It would exempt workers under 21 and give businesses with fewer than 50 employees until 2026 to comply with the $15-an-hour wage.
It would also exempt for six months businesses that are using city-approved programs to train workers. Council members agreed to that exemption at Pugh's request.