Minimum wage

Brian England, President of British American Auto Care in Columbia, is in favor of raising the minimum wage. (Photo by Nate Pesce / February 17, 2014)

Brian England and Pete Mangione both own businesses that have been Howard County institutions for three decades. They both say they care deeply about employees.

But when it comes to whether or not state legislators should raise the minimum wage, they — like many other business leaders in Maryland — don't see eye to eye.

A state bill seeking to raise the minimum wage in Maryland for the first time since 2009, from $7.25 an hour to $10.10 an hour by 2016, has backing from Gov. Martin O'Malley and a majority of Democrats in the House and Senate.

And a recent Baltimore Sun poll shows the proposal has broad support throughout the state, with a majority of respondents — even in the most conservative areas, such as the Eastern Shore and Western Maryland — saying they would like to see an increase in the minimum wage.

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Business owners, who will have the task of readjusting budgets to meet any new requirements that are passed, are more divided.

Some say that increasing wages will place an unsustainable strain on their finances, forcing them to hire fewer employees or, in more extreme cases, shut down an entire business. Others say today's employees deserve more than the current minimum wage, which earns a full-time worker $15,080 a year — $650 under the federal poverty line for a family of two.

England, the owner of British American Auto Care in Columbia, falls squarely in the second camp.

When he started his business 35 years ago, he decided that he would pay workers well above minimum wage.

"I always liked to make things better, and I always saw a lot of injustice in the way things were done," he said of his experience working as a mechanic before opening British American Auto Care. "So I said, 'I want to do it the way I want to do it and show that you can still make a living.' "

England has 18 employees — six part-time and 12 full-time. Jobs at his business include office staff, courtesy van drivers and mechanics. He said the lowest-paid position at British American, an apprenticeship, starts at $8 an hour and includes health care coverage, which England requires all his employees to have.

He said he thought his habit of "looking after" workers encouraged them to stick around. Four of his employees have been at the company for 25 years or more.

Jeffrey Sessa, a mechanic who has worked at British American for 2 1/2 years, said the working conditions are the reason he has stayed.

"This is one of my better jobs that I've had," he said. "In my trade, mechanics don't stay in one place for very long."

England is one of more than 150 Maryland business owners to sign on to the Maryland Business For a Fair Minimum Wage statement, a letter supporting a minimum wage increase to at least $10 an hour by 2016, with annual adjustments for inflation after that.

"Raising Maryland's minimum wage makes good business sense," the statement argues. "Workers are also customers. Minimum wage increases boost sales at local businesses as workers buy needed goods and services they could not afford before. And nothing drives job creation more than consumer demand."

The statement also argues that lower employee turnover rates, increased productivity, product quality and customer satisfaction will follow a minimum wage hike, as well as "reduce the strain on our social safety net caused by inadequate wages."

The heads of LPL Financial and Lasting Light Yoga and Reiki, both Columbia businesses, as well as Joy Creations, in Ellicott City, also signed the statement.

But other local business owners said they simply can't afford to raise wages as much as the current legislation suggests without making some sacrifices.

Pete Mangione, whose family has owned Turf Valley in Ellicott City for the past 36 years, said a minimum wage hike "is going to hurt so many small businesses."

He said most of his employees earn more than the minimum wage. Those who are paid $7.25 an hour, a little less than 10 percent of his employees, are younger workers in high school and college, many of whom are just entering the workforce, according to Mangione.