The union-financed national "Fight for $15" is returning to Baltimore this fall with a renewed push for a $15 hourly minimum wage. With victories in such cities as Seattle, San Francisco, New York and Los Angeles, supporters think Charm City is a prime candidate — particularly given turnover in the City Council where the measure failed by one vote in August.
Baltimore's incoming mayor, Catherine E. Pugh, has long supported raising the minimum wage at the state level but has expressed misgivings in requiring the benefit for the city alone when employers can so easily set up shop in the surrounding counties. We share her concerns, particularly given that Baltimore's October unemployment rate of 6.1 percent was significantly higher than its neighbors, Baltimore (4.5 percent), Anne Arundel (3.7), Howard (3.3), Harford (4.0) and Carroll (3.4) counties, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Yet, unless skeptics such as Council President Bernard C. "Jack" Young or Mayor-elect Pugh intervene, there's a respectable chance that the incoming council will adopt Councilwoman Mary Pat Clarke's proposal to raise Charm City's minimum wage to $15 by July 2022. Three of the bill's opponents have left the council and, as Ms. Clarke recently observed, their replacements campaigned in favor of the measure.
The minimum wage has been a fixture in the U.S. economy dating back to 1938. And we would argue that government, particularly at the federal level, has too often failed to ensure the wage keeps pace with inflation. Nationally, the highest minimum wage, relative to inflation, was the $1.60 per hour of 1968, which translates to about $11.11 in 2016 dollars when adjusted by the Consumer Price Index. Maryland's statewide minimum wage is currently set at $8.75 and will gradually rise to $10.10 per hour in 2018. The federal minimum wage remains stuck at $7.25.
Opponents of the minimum wage often make the case that wages should be left to market forces alone. We disagree with that view as well. Too many working Americans are forced to live in poverty under present conditions (leaving taxpayers to essentially subsidize employer profits through safety net programs like food stamps). But cities also can't deny basic economics — raise employers' fixed costs too high and you will simply end up with less hiring. A recent survey of Baltimore employers found the majority anticipating layoffs if the bill is enacted.
What do New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco and Seattle all have in common? They all have a higher cost of living than Baltimore. And they all have lower unemployment rates, too (unless Baltimore is lumped in with Towson and the surrounding counties). They were reasonable test cases for the proposition that a $15 minimum wage could be enacted without ill effects; Baltimore is not.
That doesn't make us unsympathetic to the goals espoused by union leaders. But when one of the lead organizers speaks on behalf of Baltimore's "airport workers" at a local rally, we have to wonder whether this is a response to the city's specific economic conditions or just an attempt to add one more city to the $15-an-hour list. Baltimore has not owned Baltimore-Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport since it was sold to the state in 1972 (when it was called Friendship International Airport). Perhaps we've been confused with Chicago or the District of Columbia. Is it possible that the campaign's one-size-fits-all approach on the minimum wage doesn't take local circumstances into account?
That's not to suggest that these are easy times for those earning the minimum wage. President-elect Donald Trump has been all over the map on the subject, but, as a rule, Republicans tend to oppose raising it. Meanwhile, the working poor may soon be taking a hit on health care costs with the repeal of the Affordable Care Act and a rollback of Medicaid. Yet the remedy to such cutbacks can't fall to Baltimore alone.
Raise the minimum wage in Baltimore to $15? Yes, eventually, but not now. It would only send a signal to the business community that they're better off staying in, or moving to, the 'burbs. And given what the city has gone through over the last two years — from Freddie Gray riots to the potential renaissance offered by Kevin Plank's Port Covington plans — is now the time for a rift between the city government and local employers, big and small? Nobody benefits from a $15 wage if there are fewer jobs to be found.