A push by labor advocates Wednesday to persuade a City Council panel to approve a $15 an hour minimum wage was met with criticism from business leaders, who say such a law would drive companies from Baltimore.
Council members planned to further study the proposal. Baltimore would become the latest city to adopt a minimum wage, amid a national push for better pay for low-skill workers. A $15 an hour wage won initial approval last week in Washington, joining San Francisco, Los Angeles and Seattle.
Under the proposal, which Councilwoman Mary Pat Clarke introduced last month, the minimum wage in the city would gradually increase to $15 an hour by 2020.
Donald Fry, president and CEO of the business advocacy organization Greater Baltimore Committee, called the proposal "premature" while speaking in front of City Council. He warned the measure would put Baltimore at a "competitive disadvantage" and make the city "an island in the central Maryland region."
Instead, Fry said the city should wait to see how businesses react to a statewide minimum wage increase to $10.10 an hour "before jumping to another level that places additional stress on businesses," he said. The state recently approved gradual increases in the statewide minimum wage level from $7.25 an hour up to $10.10 an hour by July 2018.
He said this legislation would hurt low-income, low-skilled workers the most, the exact people it is intended to help. Additionally, by outpacing surrounding communities, it would put the city on an island, geographically surrounded by areas with much lower minimum wage levels, such as Baltimore County's $8.75 an hour rate.
City officials presented an analysis to City Council that concluded the bill would cost the city $57 million in the 2021 fiscal year alone. Robert Cenname, deputy budget director for the city, said that equals about 886 full-time employees or about six percent of the city's workforce, calling that cost "very high."
An analysis released by the Restaurant Association of Maryland, who opposes the bill as well, found 3,500 jobs would be lost in the city. The study was done by two economists at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio and Trinity University in San Antonio, Texas.
Kirby Fowler, president of the nonprofit Downtown Partnership of Baltimore, said his organization supports a statewide increase in minimum wage but has "tremendous concern for unilateral action" by the city.
Other opponents who testified before the council include small business owners, the president of Maryland Hotel & Lodging Association and a Giant Supermarket executive.
Advocates and workers tried to convince the council members that raising the minimum wage would not hurt city businesses and would give the residents what they not just want but need -- a boost in wages.
Angie Mills, a mother of three who works as a janitor, said the increase in wages would allow her to provide basic items for her children like clothes and food without worrying about finances every day. Mills has worked for more than 25 years but still earns less than $15 an hour.
"Most people don't trust the government anymore, especially given how bad things are in Baltimore," Mills said before the hearing. "But a $15 minimum wage is exactly the kind of thing that would restore our faith."
The legislation would affect wages for up to 98,000 low-income workers in Baltimore, more than a quarter of the city's workforce, said David Cooper, a senior economic analyst at the nonpartisan Economic Policy Institute.
Several restaurant owners threatened — or guaranteed — closure if this bill passed.
Jim Mitich, president and COO of Ruth's Chris Steak House said he guaranteed one of the two locations in Baltimore would close if this bill passes. He said the other restaurant in the city may also end up closing and it would cost his business at least $1 million by 2020, according to his own analysis.
On the employment issue, Cooper said the consensus among economists is that moderate increases to the minimum wage have had moderate to no effect on employment levels. The proposed increase in this bill are larger than typical, but not unprecedented, he said.
Yet, Washington's decision to raise the District's wage gradually has many supporters of the city bill more optimistic about its future.
"I definitely think [D.C.] will have a positive impact," Ricarra Jones, a political organizer for a local health care union, said in an interview. "They did the right thing. I'm just hoping our city does the right thing."
Jamie Contreras, vice president of the Capital region's SEIU, said he is confident the measure will be well-received due to the recent success in Washington in addition to vocal support from Baltimore workers. Fry said it is too early to say if he thinks the bill will pass. All council members but three – James Kraft, Rikki Spector and Nick Mosby – are sponsors on the bill, although that does not necessarily mean they support it.
The bill will now undergo work sessions within City Council's Labor Committee. The dates for those hearings have not yet been scheduled.