Bill requiring $10.59 'living wage' dies in City Council committee

After more than four hours of testimony by business and religious leaders Thursday, a bill that would have required major retailers to pay workers the city's living wage died on a tie vote in a Baltimore City Council committee.

Councilman Warren Branch, chairman of the three-member labor subcommittee, voted against the bill. Councilwoman Belinda Conaway voted in its favor; Councilman Nicholas D'Adamo was absent because of his parents' poor health.

After the vote, the measure's sponsor said she was hopeful it could be resurrected.

"This is too important to just let it die in committee," Councilwoman Mary Pat Clarke said. "It could have made a huge difference for thousands of families who live in Baltimore City. It could have lifted them out of poverty or at least taken them to the poverty line."

The bill could have another chance if Branch asks for it to be reconsidered, or if eight of the 15 council members petition for it to come to the full body for a vote. Seven members have pledged their support.

In 1994, Baltimore became the first city in the nation to pass a living wage law for city contractors. Clarke, who spearheaded that legislation, said the process took 18 months.

The tie vote came after heated testimony in which union leaders said the measure would revitalize the city's economy by putting more cash in workers' pockets while business advocates said the higher wages could cause stores to pull out of the city.

Jeff Zellmer, legislative director of the Maryland Retailers Association, called the proposed legislation a "jobs lost bill" and said it would be "a Holocaust for the retail industry" — a remark that drew gasps in council chambers.

Bishop Douglas Miles, leader of the BUILD interfaith coalition, said that the 1994 living wage law, which requires city contractors to pay workers an hourly rate set by the Board of Estimates, had raised similar fears. He said the problems predicted by opponents never materialized.

"We did not believe then and do not believe now that if companies pay workers a living wage it would bring Baltimore to a screeching halt," Miles said.

The bill would have required stores that gross more than $10 million annually, or are part of a chain that does, to pay workers the living wage, which is currently set at $10.59. Retailers that provide workers health care or other benefits could have reduced the wage by as much as $2.

Many expressed doubts that stores would be able to pay higher wages. Phil Holmes, an executive with Goodwill Industries, said that the disabled workers trained by his organization would be unlikely to find jobs that pay so high above minimum wage — currently $7.25 in Maryland.

Others decried a lack of shops in the city and said it was already difficult to find a retail job. Megan Moore, 16, said she had applied to several stores and was unable to find one that would hire her.

"Please vote 'no' … so I can get my first job," Moore told subcommittee members.

But progressive activists, labor leaders and representatives from the NAACP argued that low wages made it nearly impossible to support a family with a retail job.

"I know what it is like to work three jobs and just eat eggs three times a day," said Luis Larin, a member of the United Workers union.

Thomas Cafcas, a research analyst with the liberal advocacy group "Good Jobs First," said studies show that each additional dollar in hourly pay earned by workers translates to an additional $3,500 in local spending. He countered those who criticized boosting wages during an economic downturn by pointing out that the first national minimum wage law was passed during the Great Depression.

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