What is Md. doing to protect workers?

It’s Labor Day, and with state elections just a couple of months away, it’s a good time for voters to take stock of what Annapolis is doing to protect workers in Maryland. While Wall Street and CEO pay are hitting record highs, on Main Street hard working families are still struggling. Paychecks for the middle class have been flat, leaving families squeezed as their bills rise.

During the last legislative session, the General Assembly took an important step forward by passing paid sick day protections. But efforts to increase the minimum wage to $15 stalled, leaving the statewide wage just $10.10. Workers who need more time off to take care of new babies or sick family members still enjoy no paid family leave. And the unions that helped to build Maryland’s middle class are under attack across the country. The truth is that while government is helping the wealthiest, it is not doing enough for the many working families who are living paycheck-to-paycheck and drive the economy.

The voters are demanding bold action to deliver real opportunity for working Marylanders. That’s why our organizations are calling on candidates and elected leaders to adopt a simple, three-part action agenda for the coming session for boosting Maryland’s middle class and relieving some of the pressure on families trying to stay afloat. The three straightforward planks are finally raising the minimum wage to $15 for all Maryland workers; adopting a paid family leave program; and committing our state to pushing back against the Trump administration’s assault on workers’ rights.

First, workers across the state need a $15 minimum wage. D.C. , Montgomery County and states from Massachusetts to California have already approved $15 minimum wages. In neighboring New Jersey, a $15 wage is at the top of Gov. Phil Murphy’s agenda for the year. Next year working Marylanders need the legislature to finally join these states with a $15 wage, which will deliver a badly needed raise for more than half a million Marylanders.

But equally important, we need to make sure that that the bill doesn’t block the state’s high-cost regions from raising their minimum wages in the future, or contain loopholes that leave struggling workers behind. Across the country, Republicans and corporate-backed organizations like the Koch brothers-funded American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) have sought to block democratically elected local governments from raising wages. This practice of tying the hands of local government has been shown to especially hurt workers and communities of color, and we can’t let that happen in Maryland. Corporate lobbyists have also sought to exclude young and tipped workers from getting raises, though data show that nearly half of employed teens are working their way through two and four-year colleges and need a fair wage as they struggle with spiraling costs, and that tipped workers suffer high levels of poverty and need to earn the full minimum wage to make ends meet.

Second, we must build on this year’s paid sick days victory by joining the growing number of states that also guarantee paid family leave. Too many Maryland families still cannot afford to take time off upon the birth of a child or when a loved one is ill, or risk losing their job if they do. This is where paid family leave comes in, which would provide workers with up to eight weeks of paid time off. New Jersey and D.C. have already successfully adopted paid family leave plans. And research shows paid family leave improves children’s health, keeps more mothers in the workforce, and helps small businesses by improving productivity, employee retention and profitability. It’s a no-brainer.

Finally, Maryland legislators must act to protect workers from the Trump administration’s war on workers’ fundamental right to join unions. Unions have been one of the most important forces for building the middle class and reducing inequality. But decades of corporate-funded attacks culminated this year in the Supreme Court’s anti-union Janus decision. Maryland workers need unions more than ever to help push for decent pay and benefits, and fair treatment on the job. The legislature has already responded by passing a package of reforms last session to defend workers. Maryland leaders must continue to have workers’ backs by defending the state’s workers and unions in this time of need.

All of these measures in the agenda we outline enjoy broad popular support and are key steps for creating a family friendly and thriving economy in Maryland. This coming year it’s critical that we come together as a state to support working families.

Ricarra Jones (ricarra.jones@1199.org) is deputy political director of 1199SEIU. Larry Stafford (larry@progressivemaryland.org) is executive director of Progressive Maryland. Jay Hutchins (jhutchins@workingfamilies.org) is acting executive director of Maryland Working Families.

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