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What's in a wage? From pizza shop owners to house cleaners, voices on raising Maryland's hourly minimum to $15

Thousands of Maryland workers and business owners stand to be affected if state lawmakers raise the minimum wage from $10.10 per hour to $15.

Lobbyists and advocates for workers and businesses are pressing legislators on both sides of the issue, with some saying it’s vital that someone working full-time be paid enough to take care of their basic needs, and others warning that it would kill jobs.

Democratic leaders in the General Assembly have vowed to pass a version of the $15 minimum wage bill this session, so the debate is expected to hinge on the details: how quickly the wage is raised, who it applies to and whether all of the state’s counties would require the same amount.

Republican Gov. Larry Hogan raised a note of caution about raising the minimum wage last week, noting that the minimum wage in neighboring Virginia is just $7.25, and expressing concern that Maryland could lose jobs to other states.

“It’s not a ‘Yes’ or a ‘No’ — ‘Yeah, we want everyone to get to $15’ or ‘No, we don’t,’” Hogan told reporters. “It’s: ‘Let’s make sure whatever we do, it’s done with a whole lot of thought and it helps rather than hurts.’”

The proposal before lawmakers would raise the minimum wage to $11 per hour this summer, with a dollar increase each year after until it reaches $15. It would gradually phase out a sub-minimum wage of $3.63 an hour that tipped workers, such as servers and bartenders, receive. And the bill removes some exemptions that allow certain other workers to be paid less than minimum wage.

Here’s a look at how some workers and business owners are viewing the issue.

Aaron Seyedian: Cleaning with a mission

Aaron Seyedian moved to Washington, D.C., to make a difference in the world, and when he found that his work was unfulfilling, he decided to put his money and his career on the line to test his values. He’d long supported the concept of paying workers a living wage, but rarely saw proof of it in action.

After some research, he founded Well-Paid Maids, a housecleaning service that pays its workers $17 per hour.

“I wanted there to be a living, breathing case study that advocates can point to,” Seyedian said.

Housecleaning fit the bill because it required little investment up front and is an industry that traditionally does not pay well.

Seyedian sets his cleaners’ starting pay based on a living wage calculator developed by a professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. His cleaners in the Washington area start at $17 per hour and when he expands to the Baltimore region this month, those workers will be paid $15 an hour.

To make the business work, Seyedian charges his customers more than other companies. For example, his most popular service is cleaning a one-bedroom, one-bath apartment. He charges $159, while a competitor charges $119. Even so, business is booming and the company is profitable.

Seyedian finds that his employees feel valued, work hard and stay with the company longer.

“I’m offering a real job and that’s a huge difference,” he said.

Brian Boston and Joe Barbera: Restaurant owners worry about covering increased costs

At the Milton Inn in Sparks and Aida Bistro in Columbia, servers earn well over the proposed $15 minimum wage, owners of the independent restaurants say.

Servers at Milton Inn earn an average $30 to $40 an hour with tips, says Boston, a chef and operating partner in the Sparks restaurant for the past 21 years. They can earn a similar range at Aida Bistro, said owner Joe Barbera.

Wait staff can typically reach such pay levels not only at high-end establishments, but at mid-priced restaurants too, Boston said.

“People who are tipped in the restaurant industry are in the restaurant industry for a reason,” including some who start at entry level then stick with it, Boston said. “Politicians like to treat everything as the same, and every industry is different. Tipped employees don’t need anyone’s help.”

Besides raising the minimum wage, the proposed legislation also would phase out a $3.63 per hour wage paid to employees who receive tips. Currently, employers must make up the difference between a base wage and tips that don’t add up to at least $10.10 an hour. Under the bill, all tipped workers would be paid a minimum of $15 by 2026.

Those higher costs would force restaurateurs to charge customers more, Boston said. If he paid $15 an hour to the hosts and people who bus tables, typically high school students working a first job, he would need to pay experienced workers more, he said. He figures he would need to make an additional $25,000 in sales for every $1,000 in increased costs, a difficult feat for an independent small business without corporate deep pockets.

“You’re going to see worse service, restaurants going out of business left and right, and people not going out to dinner as often,” said Boston, who employs about 50 people. “It could potentially put me out of business.”

“The restaurant industry is already providing them with a very good living wage,” Boston said.

Barbera believes a $15 minimum wage would lead to more automation in the industry and fewer new hires.

“You can’t continue to increase prices the same percentage as the increase in minimum wage,” Barbera said. “Just because you have to pay people [more] doesn’t mean customers will pay that percentage increase for the same thing ... So, there’s a point at which businesses like mine won’t be invested in.”

Janay Baker: Horseshoe Casino waitress is looking for stability

After four years serving cocktails to casino guests who play slots and bet at the craps tables, Janay Baker knows all about uncertainty. The beverage server at Horseshoe Casino Baltimore never knows for sure whether she’ll be given more than her guaranteed three shifts a week, which section of the casino she’ll work or how much she’ll earn on a given day. That makes it tough for the 28-year-old mother of three to budget to pay rent and other bills and easy to fall behind.

On a good day, she can earn $100 in a six-hour shift, including her base pay of nearly $5.50 an hour and tips. But tips, which servers share with bartenders, often fluctuate along with customers’ luck and moods.

“It can be tiring to work six hours and and you don’t make $40,” she said. The financial uncertainty “can be really emotional. You are expected to work all through that and give the best service and watch people throw their money away and still not give you a dollar.”

Under a 2017 contract between a union and casino owner Caesar’s Entertainment, Baker saw her hourly minimum wage for a tipped worker rise from the state-mandated $3.63 per hour.

The increase helped, but only so much, Baker said. Most of the part-time “floaters,” such as Baker, need second jobs. Baker also relies on food stamps and sometimes help from her mother. She is looking for a nail technician job to fill in with the casino work.

Earning a minimum of $15 an hour would be a game changer, she said. She believes service would improve as workers could focus on their jobs without worrying about their finances.

“I would feel secure and I would be able to do my job better, and be able to give better service,” she said. “I wouldn't have to stress about a second job.”

Greg Miller: Disability service provider could come up short

At Penn-Mar Human Services, Greg Miller has a challenging time hiring people to work with people with disabilities. The work can be difficult, although it also can be rewarding — coaching a client in their first job, helping a family care for a loved one with a disability.

“Not everybody is cut out for this work,” he said. “In fact, not many people are cut out for this type of work.”

Penn-Mar, like the other agencies that provide services to developmentally disabled people in Maryland, pays its employees with money from the state and federal governments.

Direct support professionals — the employees who work with clients with disabilities — often start at $10.15 to $11 per hour, according to the Maryland Association of Community Services.

Maryland’s bill to gradually increase the minimum wage includes a requirement that the governor put additional money in future budgets for community service providers such as Penn-Mar, so they, too, can pay higher hourly wages.

“Unlike a lot of businesses, we can’t raise our price and pass it on to the consumer. It just doesn’t work that way,” Miller said.

Miller said direct support professionals need to be paid a wage that values the important work that they do. If not, he worries that they will leave for other industries, and organizations like his will not be able to offer the full range of services that people with disabilities need.

“Why would they even deal with the headache if they could go to McDonald’s or Burger King and make the same money?” Miller said. “It’s a big challenge in front of us.”

The organizations are worried about the fiscal year that starts July 1: Hogan has submitted his budget proposal, and it doesn’t include enough of an increase to accommodate a rising minimum wage, they say. Representatives from Penn-Mar and other organizations plan to testify in support of the minimum wage increase but also advocate for increased funding so they can afford to pay the higher amounts.

Michael Lastoria: Pizza chain owner wants workers to feel appreciated

It was about nine months in to running his first pizza restaurant that Michael Lastoria realized that it wasn’t enough to treat his employees well. He had to pay them more, too.

Lastoria is the founder of &pizza, a chain of 35 fast-casual pizza shops that he founded in 2012 in Washington. Working alongside his hourly employees in the months that his first shop was open, Lastoria learned how far a dollar stretched. So, he began raising wages and encouraging other businesses to do the same.

“I was educated pretty quickly and I felt like since my eyes were opened, I needed to do something internally at &pizza and externally using the &pizza platform,” he said.

Lastoria said his employees, on average, make “north of $15” per hour. When District of Columbia Mayor Muriel Bowser signed a bill into law gradually increasing the District’s minimum wage, she did so in front of one of Lastoria’s shops.

If Maryland’s minimum wage is increased to $15, Lastoria said there’s a “high likelihood” that he’ll bump up his employees’ wages further.

“It has to do with taking care of our people, paying them as close to a living wage as possible and allowing them to be the face of the business and letting that vibe and culture drive the company forward,” he said.

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