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Maryland lawmakers hear hours of testimony on $15 minimum wage bill, seek 'sweet spot' of salary solution

Maryland lawmakers heard hours of conflicting testimony Friday on whether to raise the state's minimum wage to $15 per hour.

The lengthy afternoon hearing was the first step in what’s expected to be one of the most significant policy debates during this General Assembly session.

Proponents of raising the wage — which is $10.10 per hour — said it would help lift hard-working employees out of poverty and give them a chance at financial stability. Opponents countered that increasing wages would be a burden that some employers wouldn’t be able to handle, forcing them to lay off workers or close their doors.

The hearing in the House of Delegates Economic Matters Committee was standing-room-only, with more than 100 additional people in the hall. Chairman Del. Dereck Davis said 174 people signed up to testify.

Del. Diana Fennell, the bill’s lead sponsor, said the state’s minimum wage has not kept up with inflation, so workers have slipped further behind.

“This legislation is long overdue,” said Fennell, a Prince George’s County Democrat.

Ricarra Jones of the SEIU union, who is chairwoman of the “Fight for $15” coalition, said raising wages for workers would benefit the broader economy. Workers will spend their bigger paychecks at local businesses.

“It puts more money into the hands of workers,” she said.

Jones also noted that the last time lawmakers voted to raise the minimum wage, five years ago, there were predictions that the sky would fall.

“That hasn’t happened yet,” she said.

Michael O’Halloran of the National Federation of Independent Business suggested that the bill was “a solution in search of a problem.”

He said a “one-size-fits-all-mandate” doesn’t help workers or businesses. Instead, lawmakers should focus on expanding apprenticeship and job-training programs so that workers can move up to higher-paying jobs.

“It’s not supposed to be a living wage. … It’s an entry-level wage for entry-level work,” he said.

Davis, the committee chairman, said lawmakers would take input from everyone who testified.

“I don’t know really what is the sweet spot in this,” Davis said. “But I know it’s definitely not a solution looking for a problem. It may or may not be the right solution ... but the problem is real.”

The assembly’s powerful Democratic leaders, House Speaker Michael Busch and Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller, have said they support raising the minimum wage. But they’ve left open the possibility that the proposal could be changed. The bill is one of the priorities of Democratic lawmakers this year, and Busch sat in on part of Friday’s hearing.

Brice Phillips, who helps run his family’s well-known seafood restaurants, said he’d have to pay millions more to both his tipped workers and workers who make a full hourly wage.

Tipped workers, such as servers and bartenders, currently can be paid a minimum wage of $3.63, plus tips, a provision that would be phased out under the bill. Over eight years, Phillips estimated his increased payroll costs would be $10.8 million.

Some have suggested he could raise his prices to compensate, but “that doesn’t work,” Phillips said. “Seafood is already prohibitively expensive.”

Lawmakers also heard from various nonprofit organizations that receive state funding, including those that serve Marylanders with disabilities and others that offer mental health and addiction treatment. They asked lawmakers to make sure there’s an increase in the state budget so that they have enough money to pay increased wages for their workers.

The proposal before lawmakers would raise the state’s minimum wage to $11 an hour this summer, then increase it by $1 an hour each year until it reaches $15 in 2023.

In addition to eliminating the lower minimum wage for tipped workers, the bill would remove exemptions that allow companies to pay less to some workers, such as some agricultural workers, people working on commission, teenagers in the first six months of a job and seasonal recreational workers.

pwood@baltsun.com

twitter.com/pwoodreporter

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