Baltimore City Council sends $15 minimum wage bill back to committee

Mary Pat Clarke: "Our $15 minimum-wage bill is alive and resting comfortably. We shall return."

Supporters of a proposal to raise Baltimore's minimum wage to $15 an hour failed to muster the votes for passage Monday night, instead sending the bill back to committee and an uncertain future.

Chief sponsor Mary Pat Clarke pledged to continue to look for the additional vote needed to pass the measure, even if that meant waiting until a new council takes office after the November election.

"If the eighth vote does not appear, see you in December," Clarke said. "We will have the $15 minimum wage. Absolutely."

The council voted 8-6 with one abstention to return the bill to committee to continue work. Clarke said that also would allow the council to address concerns from advocates for blind workers who worry the bill would inadvertently allow disabled workers to be paid less than those without disabilities.

"Our $15 minimum-wage bill is alive and resting comfortably," Clarke said after the vote. "We shall return."

City Councilman Robert W. Curran, chairman of the labor committee, said he wouldn't bring the matter out of the committee unless he's sure there were eight of 15 members ready to support it. That could mean the bill wouldn't get another vote until December, when eight new members who Clarke said are "more progressive" will join the council.

The legislation would raise the minimum wage in Baltimore in phases until it reached $15 an hour by 2022. The Maryland minimum wage increased to $8.75 an hour last month en route to $10.10 an hour by 2018.

The measure advanced by a preliminary vote of 7-4 last week but needed eight votes to pass the 15-member council Monday. Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake has said she will sign the legislation if the council passes it.

The vote to send the bill back to committee came after intense lobbying.

As council members entered the City Council chamber Monday, supporters of the legislation, including local NAACP President Tessa Hill-Aston, urged them to vote yes. Even the priest giving the invocation, the Rev. Ty Hullinger of St. Dominic's Catholic Church, urged council members to pass the bill.

"The council is still divided," said City Council President Bernard C. "Jack" Young, one of eight members to oppose the bill. "Everybody wants to get a raise. I believe people deserve a raise. ... But I don't think Baltimore should be the one to lead this national movement."

Young has said he doesn't believe the council should vote for a bill that raises the city's minimum wage any higher than $11.50 per hour. He and other opponents say they worry about how it would affect Baltimore's economy, citing surveys of small businesses who say they would close or move if the wage is raised.

In a survey of 322 Baltimore businesses by the Baltimore Development Corp., 97 said the bill would cause them to reduce hours for workers, 69 said they would lay off workers, 56 said they would close, and 33 said they would move out of Baltimore.

"It would have an adverse affect on the economy of Baltimore City," Young said. "Whether they want to believe that or not, it's reality."

Advocates say raising the minimum wage to $15 an hour would help working families make ends meet, giving them more money to spend and thus boosting local businesses.

Katrina Johnson, a 45-year-old housekeeper from Northeast Baltimore, said a $15 minimum wage would improve life for her and her 12-year-old daughter.

"At $15 an hour, I would be able to take care of my bills and everything else, and I wouldn't need the assistance I receive from social services," Johnson said in an interview. "I'm living from paycheck to paycheck. It would really help me out in the long run and give me some kind of stability."

Clarke's bill calls for the minimum wage paid in Baltimore to increase to $9.50 an hour next July, with $1 raises thereafter until reaching $13.50 in 2021. It would jump to $15 an hour in 2022 and after that would rise with the cost of living.

The legislation exempts businesses with fewer than 25 workers and those with less than $500,000 in gross annual income from paying the proposed minimum wage.

Baltimore is the latest jurisdiction nationwide to consider a minimum-wage increase. The District of Columbia, Seattle and San Francisco all have approved increases to $15 an hour.

Montgomery County is considering a similar increase.

Young and council members Rochelle "Rikki" Spector, Eric T. Costello, Warren Branch, Helen Holton, William "Pete" Welch, James Kraft and Carl Stokes opposed the bill.

Stokes said he backs Young's compromise of raising the minimum wage to $11.50 an hour but no higher. He also took issue with the exemption for small businesses, which he said would mean it wouldn't apply to a majority of city businesses.

"Baltimore need not pass a law that puts its minimum wage at $4 or $5 above every other state jurisdiction while in fact exempting the greater majority of the workers from receiving the increase," Stokes said. "This presents a cruel and false hope to workers."

Joining Clarke in supporting the bill were Robert Curran, Bill Henry, Sharon Green Middleton, Nick J. Mosby, Edward Reisinger and Brandon Scott.

Donald C. Fry, president of the pro-business Greater Baltimore Committee, said his organization will continue to oppose the legislation.

"The Greater Baltimore Committee appreciates that the City Council considered the many points of view expressed on this proposal, including the GBC's, and has determined there are serious issues that need more review," he said. "The GBC stands firm in its belief that this bill should be defeated as it will have very serious consequences for employers and hurt Baltimore's ability to compete for business and jobs."

But Ricarra Jones, a political organizer for a local health care union, said advocates are confident they can eventually win a minimum-wage increase for an estimated 90,000 workers in Baltimore.

"We look at it as not a defeat but a delay," Jones said. "We want to get this passed. Would it be great if we can get it passed this year? Yes. But are we willing to wait? Of course. We have a much more progressive council who is coming in. We're very confident we're going to have the votes on the new council."

lbroadwater@baltsun.com

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