Council to debate plan to pay living wage of $10.59 in city

The Baltimore City Council is slated to hear testimony today on a controversial proposal to require large retailers in the city to pay employees a "living wage" — currently, $10.59 per hour.

The measure has sparked strong opposition from business leaders, who say it would deter retailers from moving into the city. But it has drawn support from labor activists, who say many workers do not earn enough money to support their families.

Councilwoman Mary Pat Clarke said she was inspired to introduce the bill after listening to presentations about a planned Walmart store in Remington and learning that large retail chains are looking to expand in urban areas.

"The goal is that people who work hard can support their families without turning to charity or the government for help," said Clarke, who was council president when Baltimore passed the nation's first living-wage law in 1994.

But Greater Baltimore Committee Chairman Donald C. Fry said the measure could force retailers to lay off employees or cut hours to cover the increased payroll. And he said the higher wages could cause stores to choose to move to the surrounding counties rather than the city.

"We're having trouble attracting businesses in the first place," said Fry. "This is not the type of legislation that's helpful in growing the city's tax base."

Paul Sonn, co-director of the National Employment Law Project in New York, said that studies show similar initiatives in San Francisco and Santa Fe, N.M., did not drive out businesses. Nor did a law that increased pay for security guards in Washington, D.C., to nearly $13 per hour, he said.

"Similar wage policies have not stopped business growth," Sonn said. "Employers have adjusted and bumped up pay."

Under the measure, businesses that gross more than $10 million per year — or are part of a chain that does — would be required to pay employees the living wage that the city now demands of its contractors. Stores could reduce the amount by as much as $2 per hour if they provide health care or other benefits.

Brian Nesbit, a local organizer for the UFCW, a union of supermarket and retail workers, said the measure would prevent workers from "having to work two or three jobs just to make ends meet."

Rob Santoni, owner of the Highlandtown supermarket that bears his name, said the measure could cost him a couple of hundred thousand dollars each year and "make it really tough to make ends meet." He said his store grosses more than $17 million per year.

Ten of the 15 council members signed on as co-sponsors of the bill when Clarke introduced it in May. Council President Bernard C. "Jack" Young is waiting to hear today's testimony before taking a stand on the bill, said spokesman Lester Davis.

If the committee approves the bill, the full council could vote on it next month. If the council approves the bill, it would require Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake's signature to become law.

Rawlings-Blake declined to respond to a question about the bill on Wednesday. She referred a reporter to her spokesman, who wrote in an e-mail that Rawlings-Blake has "concerns about the bill's potential impact on job creation efforts."

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