The Howard County Council decided Monday night to split the public hearing on a bill to gradually increase the county’s minimum wage to $16 by allowing those in person to speak and rescheduling the virtual speakers to present Wednesday evening.
Testimony on the bill began around 10:30 p.m. and went until a little after midnight as about 27 business owners and individuals explained to the council in 3-minute sessions why they did or did not support the bill.
Those in favor of the bill stressed the importance of a living wage — one that covers the basic necessities, like food and rent or mortgage — for residents. While a true living wage for Howard County would be around $22 an hour, the bill is a “major step forward,” according to Kelly Klinefelter, president of the Howard Progressive Project’s board of directors.
“For too long, most of us have enjoyed the vast prosperity of our American economy, but we have done that at the expense of 28% of our community, whose work is every bit essential as ours, as yours and mine, but doesn’t pay enough to cover the bills,” Klinefelter said.
If passed, the bill would incrementally raise the minimum wage for workers in Howard County to reach $16 an hour by 2026. Businesses with 15 or more employees would start at $14 an hour effective April 1, then increase to $15 in 2023 and $16 in 2025. Small businesses with fewer than 15 employees would start at $13 an hour April 1, then increase to $14 in 2023, $15 in 2024 and $16 in 2026. Howard County government employees would see an increase to $15 an hour effective July 1 and then $16 in 2024.
In neighboring Montgomery County, the minimum wage has already increased to $15 for employers with 51 or more employees and $14 for employers with 50 or fewer employees; a small employer, with 10 or fewer employees, pays $13.50. The county will then further raise wages to $14.50 for mid-sized businesses and $14 for small businesses next July.
Maryland also has a plan in place to gradually increase minimum wages statewide. Starting Jan. 1, employers with 15 or more workers will pay $12.50 an hour, which then increases to $13.25 in 2023 and $14 in 2024. For businesses with fewer than 15 employees, workers will receive $12.20 an hour, then $12.80 in 2023 and $13.40 in 2024. If passed, Howard’s law would substitute the state’s plan.
Daniel Newberger, of Living Wage Howard County, which staged a small rally outside of the George Howard Building before the hearing, told the council that the bill is a “critical first step” toward “ensuring everyone in Howard County earns a living wage.” He said the county already imposes standards on businesses “all the time,” including health and fire code standards.
“[The bill] belatedly adds the well-being of employees to that list of standards,” Newberger said.
Howard County Chamber of Commerce President and CEO Leonardo McClarty said opposition to the bill is “not out of greed but rather timing and fiscal impact on a group that has seen their businesses hammered over the last two years” due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Randy Marriner, chair and founder of the Victoria Restaurant Group which owns Victoria Gastro Pub in Columbia and Manor Hill Tavern in Ellicott City, said the bill would have “devastating effects” on his business and other restaurants in the county.
“What vaccine has protected you from seeing the ravages this pandemic has had on our local restaurant industry?” Marriner asked. “Those of us that have survived after losing almost everything must now deal with runaway inflation, staffing shortages, supply chain issues, fuel surcharges and the list goes on and on. And now you want to raise the baseline on all labor on top of that? When minimum wages go up, all wages go up.”
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Barbara Nicklas, senior general manager of The Mall in Columbia, said 93 of the mall’s tenants, or 44%, are small businesses that have been “severely challenged by the pandemic.”
The vast majority of the businesses already pay more than the minimum wage except for starting positions, Nicklas said.
“As a whole, they have over 4,000 employees and are very committed to doing what is right by their employees,” Nicklas said. “We believe is not time to further add to their burden.”
Amy Rohrer, president and CEO of Maryland Hotel Lodging Association, said the issue of minimum wage should be handled on “a larger, regional statewide level” as many hotels operate across county lines and “it is challenging when local jurisdictions establish different rules.”
She also is concerned about the economic effects and timing of the bill.
“It is no secret that hotels have been decimated by COVID-19,” Rover said. “In Howard County alone, room revenue [was] down 51% in 2020 compared to 2019, and we are projected to end 2021 down 37% compared to 2019. We are very much not out of the woods. Full recovery is not anticipated until 2024 when business travel is expected to return to pre-pandemic levels.”
Virtual testimony for the bill from the 32 speakers who were rescheduled from Monday will resume at 6 p.m. Wednesday. Final consideration for the bill will be Dec. 6.