Baltimore City Council poised to pass $15 minimum wage law

"Nothing could be better than if our example leads to a statewide" $15 minimum wage law, councilwoman says.

Only months after rejecting a similar measure, the Baltimore City Council is poised to pass a bill Monday that would raise the city's minimum wage to $15 an hour by 2022. The rate would be nearly $5 an hour higher than in surrounding counties.

With eight newly elected members — some of whom say their supporters expect dramatic change — the City Council has rallied around veteran lawmaker Mary Pat Clarke's minimum wage proposal, which she argues will help some of Baltimore's poorest residents escape poverty.

"People understand that we have to close a number of gaps in our society in order to come together as one Baltimore," Clarke said. "People who work hard should be able to support their families and not stand in pantry lines." The bill, she said, is "good for the city."

The council, composed entirely of Democrats, gave preliminary approval to the legislation this month. Another affirmative vote would send the matter to the desk of new Mayor Catherine Pugh, who has yet to say whether she will sign or veto the legislation.

Pugh, also a Democrat, pledged during her campaign to support a $15 minimum wage, but recently expressed concern about the bill's impact on businesses.

"I am going to review it thoroughly. I'm still having conversations with City Council people," the mayor said. "I'm analyzing the impact of this piece of legislation on Baltimore city in its totality. I have to make a decision as to whether or not we move forward, we delay it or we don't sign it at all. We will see."

Pugh said last week she was disappointed the council hadn't done more fiscal analysis before backing the bill. Baltimore finance officials 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 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.

"We want everybody to have a great wage," Pugh said. "But we also know in our city there are people who have not been trained."

Some advocates who otherwise support the bill said they are disappointed with the exemption for younger workers.

"Young adults in the workplace are often supporting themselves and trying to pay for school," Charly Carter, director of Maryland Working Families, said in a statement. "It's not fair to exempt them from a livable minimum wage. They work as hard as other workers and deserve to be paid fairly, too."

The 12-3 preliminary vote of the council on March 6 — enough votes to override a mayoral veto if that margin holds Monday — came after the previous City Council narrowly rejected a similar proposal in August. But November's election swept into office eight new Democrats, most of whom are seeking widespread changes to how the city runs.

Joining Clarke in supporting the bill are City Council President Bernard C. "Jack" Young, Vice President Sharon Green Middleton and council members Zeke Cohen, Brandon Scott, Ryan Dorsey, Bill Henry, Kristerfer Burnett, John Bullock, Edward Reisinger, Robert Stokes and Shannon Sneed.

Opposing the bill are council members Isaac "Yitzy" Schleifer, Leon Pinkett and Eric Costello.

Each of those councilmen has tried unsuccessfully to amend the legislation, including attempts to exempt small businesses and apprenticeships from paying workers $15 an hour.

Schleifer said he's concerned the higher wage would stifle entrepreneurship in the city and cause start-ups to move to Baltimore County.

"Anybody who has started a business understands that it's very tough to turn a profit in the early years," he said. "Oftentimes the early employees work very long and hard and make a lot of sacrifices so they can move up with the business."

He said he would prefer Baltimore raise its minimum wage in concert with other jurisdictions. Maryland General Assembly committees held hearings this month on bills that would raise the state minimum wage to $15 an hour, but have not voted on the proposals.

"My district hugs the county line," Schleifer said. "I have small business owners in my district who are already looking at properties in the county a few blocks way."

Clarke said she understands that some will consider the city's minimum wage bill a "bit of a jolt." But she said it doesn't take effect for several years, so businesses and the city government have time to prepare. She said she hopes it leads to other Maryland jurisdictions following the city's lead.

"Nothing could be better than if our example leads to a statewide law," Clarke said.

A recent poll by Goucher College found that 60 percent of Marylanders support raising the minimum wage at the state level and 63 percent believe cities like Baltimore should be able to set their own minimum wages.

lbroadwater@baltsun.com

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