Ending a standoff that had stalled the governor's top legislative priority, General Assembly leaders said Wednesday that they have reached a deal to raise Maryland's minimum wage, while also boosting the pay of workers caring for the developmentally disabled.
Under terms unveiled by Sen. Thomas M. Middleton and approved by the Senate Finance Committee, the minimum wage would rise incrementally to $10.10 by July 2018, two years later than Gov. Martin O'Malley proposed.
At the same time, funding for state-paid workers who care for the developmentally disabled would increase by about $30 million a year starting in fiscal 2016, Middleton said. The funding would provide raises to about 18,000 caregivers at community-based providers.
"There have been a lot of negotiations to get the administration and House on board," said Middleton, a Charles County Democrat and staunch advocate for the developmentally disabled.
O'Malley, a Democrat, issued a statement of support following the Senate committee action, saying he had "worked hard to forge consensus and bring people together" on the issue. Lt. Gov. Anthony G. Brown, who also has pressed to raise the minimum wage, issued his own statement of support, calling the committee vote "an important first step."
But while advocates for disability workers hailed the deal, those who have campaigned for raising the minimum wage said they were concerned about delaying the increase. House and Senate lawmakers also decided not to tie future increases in the minimum wage to the cost of living — a provision sought by O'Malley.
Matthew Hanson of Working Families said that opinion polls have shown strong support statewide for raising the minimum wage to $10.10 an hour in three years or less. He and other advocates were disappointed in particular that lawmakers declined to keep tipped workers base pay at least 50 percent of minimum wage.
"We hope legislators will listen to their constituents and support the right increase at the right time," he said.
The accord still faces hurdles. With just a few days left in the General Assembly session, the legislation must clear the Senate and then the two chambers must iron out their differences.
The bill approved Wednesday by the Finance Committee, which Middleton chairs, is scheduled to get a vote in the Senate Budget & Taxation Committee Thursday before it can go to the full Senate.
House leaders said they were optimistic about moves made by the Senate. Speaker Michael E. Busch said, "The structure of it looks good right now." Del. Dereck Davis, chairman of the House Economic Matters Committee, said that House and Senate leaders have agreed on all key points.
The Senate panel froze base pay for workers who earn tips at $3.63 an hour — a concession to the restaurant industry.
And the Senate committee added a "training wage," letting employers pay young workers up to 19 years old at 15 percent below the minimum wage for their first six months of employment.
The Senate panel went along with the House-passed bill in key respects, refusing to provide automatic cost-of-living increases in the minimum wage and freezing tipped workers' base pay at its current level.
One of the biggest hurdles to reaching an accord had been the issue of disability worker pay. The Senate panel's action came after legislative leaders and the administration agreed to tie raising the minimum wage to boosting state funding for their pay.
That increase had been championed by Middleton, who had stalled the minimum wage legislation until some provision was made to keep the state's caregivers from seeing their pay overtaken by the minimum wage.
Nonprofit providers of services for the developmentally disabled say they already struggle to attract and retain workers at current pay rates, which are on average one-third higher than the current minimum wage of $7.25 an hour.
"Direct-support" workers employed by private providers tend to the needs of about 25,000 developmentally disabled individuals in homes and group homes across the state, according to Laura Howell, executive director of the Maryland Association of Community Services. The state reimburses those providers, who then pay their employees.
Middleton said the stretched-out timetable for raising the minimum wage was needed to ensure that as that wage rises, disability workers continue to make more than that.
Under the deal, disability workers would be in line for 3.5 percent raises annually through 2018.
"These amendments will keep us about 30 percent above the minimum wage," Howell said. Her organization represents the nonprofit providers of care to developmentally disabled adults and children.
Ricarra Jones, chair of Raise Maryland, called the Senate action on the minimum wage "real progress" toward giving raises to 500,000 Marylanders who have not seen an increase years.
However, a spokeswoman for a small-business group opposed to raising the minimum wage panned the Senate vote. While some business owners support raising the pay floor, many mainstream business organizations oppose it, arguing it will drive up consumer prices and force employers to cut back on hours or positions.
"We're extremely disappointed," said Jessica Cooper, state director for the National Federation of Independent Business. "This is a job killing bill. It's going to hurt workers. It's going to hurt the economy."
Cooper also suggested that the Senate panel's decision to carve out a lower "training" wage for younger workers undermines one of the chief arguments being made by proponents for raising the minimum wage — to help low-wage workers support families.
"Why would you hire a single working mom when you can pay the 19 and under less?" asked Cooper.Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun