Baltimore's lowest-paid workers moved one step closer on Monday to earning at least $15 an hour when the City Council gave preliminary approval to raising the minimum wage.
The council voted 7-4 to back a plan to steadily raise the rate from the state's current $8.75 minimum through 2022. Three council members abstained and one was absent.
A final vote on the proposal is expected Aug. 15. To pass, it would need the support of at least eight of the 15 council members.
Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake has said she would sign the legislation but would prefer that the General Assembly set a higher minimum wage across the state.
The council voted against an amendment offered by President Bernard C. "Jack" Young to scale back the hourly increase to $11.50 before voting in favor of the $15 proposal.
Councilwoman Mary Pat Clarke, the bill's chief sponsor, began to lobby City Councilman Carl Stokes immediately after the vote. Stokes had abstained from the vote.
"Give people a chance, please," Clarke said to Stokes.
"It's a false hope," Stokes replied. He said he was concerned that a higher wage in Baltimore would draw higher-skilled workers to the city, squeezing residents out of jobs.
Stokes said workers should be paid $15 an hour, but requiring companies to pay that rate could lead to unintended consequences.
He said he prefers the state to take action.
"I am betwixt and between," Stokes said. "I am not sure we should lead the pack. It would be better if we move together."
The city does not have a minimum wage. Employers in Baltimore are required to pay the state minimum wage, which rose to $8.75 an hour last month and will increase to $10.10 by 2018.
The city legislation would exempt businesses with fewer than 25 employees or less than $500,000 in gross annual income. The Maryland Zoo in Baltimore and the city's YouthWorks program would also be exempt.
The bill calls for the rate to increase to $9.50 an hour next July, with $1 raises thereafter until it reaches $13.50 in 2021, then jumping to $15 an hour in 2022. A cost-of-living adjustment would be added in each year.
Employees who work for tips would see their base pay increase from $3.65 to $5, but they wouldn't be guaranteed cost-of-living raises.
Washington, Seattle and San Francisco have approved a $15 minimum wage. Montgomery County is considering a similar increase.
Council members Brandon Scott, Robert Curran, Bill Henry, Sharon Green Middleton, Nick J. Mosby, Edward Reisinger and Clarke voted in favor. Young, Rochelle "Rikki" Spector, Eric T. Costello and Warren Branch voted against.
Stokes, William "Pete" Welch and Helen Holton abstained. James B. Kraft was absent.
Kraft has said he opposes the legislation.
Young plans to evaluate the next steps, including possibly pushing again for the $11.50 amendment at the next council meeting. He called that rate a compromise between those who want to raise the wage and those who are concerned that an increase will push businesses out of the city.
He said he wants workers in the city to make more money but believes raising the rate comes with too many risks. If council members continue to push for $15 without accepting a compromise, he said, there might be no increase.
"If I believe we would do it and the whole state would follow, I would do it without batting an eye," Young said. "I'd rather $11.50 than $0."
Business groups have opposed the legislation. The city's finance department has said it could cost Baltimore as much as $65 million per year. And the Baltimore Development Corp., the city's development arm, has raised concerns.
In a survey of 322 Baltimore businesses, 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.
Others strongly support the proposal.
More than 100 people packed the council chambers and an overflow room. Charly Carter, director of the advocacy group Maryland Working Families, said the organization will pressure Stokes and other council members over the next week to build more support.
"We're really disappointed," she said. "This is about the legacy you want to leave."
Carter and others were especially critical of Costello, saying he previously indicated his support for a $15 minimum wage.
Costello, whose district stretches from downtown to South Baltimore, said he supports raising the minimum wage to $15 per hour so long as it does not hurt small businesses and their workers.
"This bill is going to have dire consequences for the small-business community in Baltimore City, and their ability to continue to employ Baltimore City residents," Costello said. "These small businesses are already at a severe competitive disadvantage with businesses in the neighboring counties."
Costello pointed to the city's property tax rate, which is double the rate in surrounding counties. He pushed for an amendment that would have frozen Baltimore's increase, pending similar action in Baltimore and Anne Arundel counties, but it failed.
Spector said increases in the minimum wage over the decades have not eased Baltimore's poverty rate before and won't now. Many workers commute into the city and live outside its borders, she said.
"It matters where you sleep at night, not where you earn it," Spector said. "Let it be statewide, don't let it just be Baltimore."
Clarke said paying a higher wage to city-based workers is a matter of justice.
"It's about independence," she said. "People are working hard — sometimes two jobs, sometimes three — and they still need to stand in a long line to get groceries at the end of the month. No wonder we're two cities."
Clarke said local governments must take the lead in requiring companies to better pay workers, increasing pressure on states and the federal government to follow suit.
"This is how you do it: You start locally, then it builds to states and to the nation," Clarke said. "It's a moral issue to have such economic injustice when the federal minimum wage has been stuck for years and the cost of living has increased."