Backers of 'living wage' bill address House committee

A "living wage" bill that would require state contractors to pay workers $11.95 an hour -- or nearly twice the state's minimum wage -- could affect about 50,000 workers, lifting them out of poverty and reducing dependency on social and welfare programs, backers told a House of Delegates committee yesterday.

"We are one of the wealthiest states in the nation. We have the capacity to do this," said Thomas E. Perez, who has been tapped by Gov. Martin O'Malley to head the Department of Labor, Licensing and Regulation.


The proposal, which has strong support from organized labor but was vetoed by former Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., has benefited from a renewed push by O'Malley, who received hundreds of thousands of dollars in contributions from unions during the fall campaign.

If the bill gets to O'Malley's desk, he "will sign it with enthusiasm," Perez told the House Economic Matters Committee.


The living wage movement was born in Baltimore, which became the first jurisdiction in the United States to enact such a requirement for its contractors in 1994. Since then, more than 120 cities and counties have adopted similar laws, including Boston and Los Angeles, as well as Montgomery and Prince George's counties. Efforts to pass such legislation on a statewide basis, however, have faltered in the Maryland General Assembly since the late 1990s.

Opponents including the Maryland Chamber of Commerce say the proposal is fiscally irresponsible, especially in light of a projected $1.3 billion budget shortfall next year. The chamber notes that the bill could put small businesses at a disadvantage when bidding for state contracts, and that the state doesn't even pay its own employees the equivalent of $11.95 an hour for the first four pay grades.

A full-time worker making $11.95 an hour would earn about $24,850 a year. The federal poverty threshold for a family of four is $20,650.

State fiscal analysts didn't estimate how much total contract costs would rise under the bill, saying there are too many unknown factors. The Department of Legislative Services estimated that the cost of maintenance, food service and child care contracts, jobs most likely affected by the bill, could rise by about $1.5 million annually.

Del. Thomas Hucker, a Montgomery County Democrat, estimates that 50,000 workers on state contracts would get the higher wage. Before his election, Hucker spent years lobbying for living wage legislation on behalf of Progressive Maryland, a coalition of unions, community groups and members of the clergy.

The living wage requirement would only apply to contracts worth more than $100,000 and would not apply to workers younger than age 17 or those who work fewer than 13 consecutive weeks. Also, some contractors, such as providers of emergency services, would be exempted. Del. Richard K. Impallaria, a Baltimore County Republican, said those "loopholes" should be removed.

Also yesterday, the committee heard testimony on a bill that would require employers to allow a half-hour of paid time to eat for employees who have worked more than five consecutive hours, and another labor-backed measure to require that certain state contractors be paid at least as much as state employees are paid for the same work.