A $1-an-hour increase in Maryland's minimum wage went into effect yesterday, a change backers said will help the state's working poor make ends meet in a time of rapidly rising housing and energy costs.
About 55,000 Marylanders have until now been paid the federal minimum wage, but advocates estimate that the ripple effects of the state increase to $6.15 an hour could help about three times that many workers.
With the change, Maryland joins 17 other states and the District of Columbia in setting a rate higher than the federal standard, which hasn't been increased in nearly 10 years.
"A dollar an hour may not seem like a whole lot to many of us in this room, but to people making minimum wage ... it means a whole lot," said Fred Mason, president of the Maryland State and D.C. AFL-CIO, which lobbied on behalf of the increase. "It can be the difference between food, furniture, all those sorts of things."
The change was strongly opposed by Maryland's business community and vetoed by Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. The General Assembly overrode the veto in January.
Will Burns, a spokesman for the Maryland Chamber of Commerce, which lobbied against the bill, said it's unlikely that the change will have much direct impact on Maryland businesses because relatively few workers are making minimum wage.
But he said de-coupling from the federal rate will put Maryland at a competitive disadvantage in attracting business to the state, especially in conjunction with new legislation requiring Wal-Mart to pay more for employee health care.
"With so few people in Maryland making the minimum wage, the marketplace was working," Burns said. "But now it's the unintended consequences we're going to be monitoring over the next couple of years."
Backers of the increase, who held a news conference in Annapolis yesterday, said they expect it will help businesses, not hurt them, because low-wage workers will inject more money into local economies.
"This dollar-an-hour wage increase for the working citizens of Maryland is going to go right back into the small businesses," said Del. Ann Marie Doory, a Baltimore Democrat. "The people who are making this extra dollar an hour are not going to be putting this in a Roth IRA or a 401(k)."
Jeanelle Williams, a minimum wage worker from West Baltimore who advocated for the change during the override debate in January, returned to Annapolis yesterday to celebrate her impending raise.
The single mother of a 7-year-old boy works at a Burger King in Park Heights. She said she hopes that with the raise she might be able to take him to the National Aquarium.
"Going on outings with my son, it would be nice to not always have to look at the special rates on things," she said. "You can get a special rate at the aquarium if you go after 5 on Fridays, but I'm always at work. Just with an extra dollar, it might make me more able to take him."