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Sen. Bob Cassilly: Push for $15 minimum wage brings complex issues

One of a series of weekly commentaries from Harford County state legislators regarding the 2019 Maryland General Assembly session.

The push to increase the minimum wage in Maryland to $15 an hour raises issues that are more complex than suggested by the advocates’ simple plea that everyone is entitled to an annual living wage of $31,000 from the moment they start their first job.

At a very basic level, we need to ask whether it is necessary, wise, and fair for our state to mandate the same starting wage, statewide for all jobs and all employees. For example, should we demand as a matter of state law that an 18-year-old high school student living at home in rural Wicomico County busing tables on weekends for spending money must be paid the same income as an 18-year-old construction laborer enduring the high costs of living on her own in urban Montgomery County?

This discussion is complicated by the fact that we have such a wide divergence of economic prosperity among the 24 counties and with the surrounding states. For example, Maryland includes two of the wealthiest counties in the entire U.S., Montgomery and Howard, whose labor forces are dominated by very high paying federal jobs that are largely immune from economic downturns, competition, and workforce instability.

Their resilient economies stand in sharp contrast with much of the rest of Maryland, especially the rural counties, where private sector employers must respond to economic downturns, market uncertainties, increased costs of production, and competition from other counties, states, and nations.

We cannot mandate that employers make jobs available at $15 per hour. We can only mandate that employers either eliminate jobs paying less than $15 or retain those jobs by increasing the hourly wage. Advocates for the increase to $15 are clearly betting that more employers will increase wages than will eliminate jobs.

But the stakes on that bet are not evenly distributed throughout the state. For example, in those counties with a high percentage of federal workers, the percentage of the labor force earning below $15/hour is as low as 18.7 percent in Howard County and 22 percent in Montgomery County.

By contrast, in those counties dominated by private sector employment, wages below $15 per hour represent as much as 41.2 percent of the labor force in Wicomico, Worcester, and Somerset, and 39 percent in the western counties. The strong support for $15 in the Washington, D.C., region counties reflects the lesser risk that region faces from disrupting only 18 percent of the workforce.

The risks of serious social, economic and political turmoil are considerably greater, and public opposition to $15 nearly doubles, in counties where the risk impacts 41 percent of a county’s workforce.

The risks are also not evenly distributed when it comes to the loss of potential job opportunities for those not yet in the work force. The risk that potential job opportunities will be lost are less in the wealthier counties dominated by federal employment, where over 71 percent of the potential labor force is already employed.

The risks that existing jobs will leave or new entry level jobs will not materialize are greater in, for example, Baltimore City where only 61 percent of the potential labor force is currently employed and those not in the workforce are disproportionately minorities.

There is a group of businesses vocally advocating a $15 minimum wage. In reviewing their membership list, it appears from their business descriptions and locations that very few of those employers are currently providing jobs to disadvantaged young people at the bottom of the wage scale who often lack basic job skills.

The question these businesses need to answer is not whether they support other businesses paying $15 but whether after an increase to $15 they will employ any of the growing body of young people who are currently either unemployed or paid below the $15 rate. A simple desire by advocates to see others pay more money to those at the lower end of the pay scale does not make $15/hour sound public policy.

As much as I want to see folks making more, we need to keep in mind the impact our laws can have on those who are on the verge of being excluded from any participation in the most powerful economic engine in the world. Entry-level workers often lack the maturity, skills, education and self-discipline that would justify a salary of $31,000.

If we continue to drive away the entry-level jobs for which they might qualify, we can expect to see an increase in those who will never know the sense of fulfillment, productivity and purpose that comes from being a part of the economy.

Sen. Bob Cassilly, a Republican, represents District 34 in Harford County.

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