More than 80 years ago, in the depths of the Great Depression, this country introduced the first federal minimum wage to ensure workers earned fair compensation for their work. For decades thereafter, Congress raised the minimum wage and the results were clear: Working families’ living standards rose, and the middle class grew, as did the economy. Businesses did not shutter, and unemployment did not skyrocket.
At its peak in 1968, the federal minimum wage was nearly $12 in today’s dollars. Today it stands at $7.25 an hour. Even in our state, with its high cost of living, the minimum wage comes up short at $10.10.
Here in Maryland, labor, faith organizations and working people have worked tirelessly to make our state an early leader in the nationwide movement for a $15 minimum wage. It was our goal to make 2019 the year that legislators in Annapolis got on board and made the minimum wage a living wage.
Despite the declarations of victory from some lawmakers, the legislation they passed this session does not achieve the goals of the Fight for $15 movement. It fails to protect tipped workers, does not provide for indexing and delays implementation of a $15 wage until 2025 in the House version and 2028 in the Senate (the discrepancy is set to be worked out in conference committee). By either of those years, $15 may be as insufficient as $10.10 is today.
By delaying a $15 wage for this long, this legislation does nothing for working families trapped in poverty, despite many of them holding down multiple jobs. To add insult to injury, its passage risks sapping the political urgency from a vital movement for workplace justice. If delegates, senators and even some self-proclaimed activists are patting themselves on the back for a bill that does nothing, what hope do we have that they will get back to work and do the right thing next session?
The minimum wage was conceived so that no one who worked full-time lived in poverty. The historical record is clear: This wage was always meant to be a living wage, not bare subsistence. Its reputation as substandard pay took hold only as state and federal legislators failed to update it with a rising cost of living and inflation. Our delegates and senators had an opportunity to correct this wrong and stand on the right side of history. They punted.
Perfect legislation does not exist, but the bill being touted in Annapolis is not even adequate. It neglects working families and gives a hollow victory to image-conscious politicians — all while allowing companies to continue the shameful practice of underpaying their employees as taxpayers pick up the tab for the public programs on which under compensated employees depend.
The work of activists, labor and faith communities in this arena has been nothing but admirable. All blame for this disappointment rests squarely with the politicians, not the people. Those same politicians did however make one thing certain: We will be back in Annapolis every session until a bill that makes our state’s minimum wage a living wage on a reasonable timeline is passed and signed into law.
Mark McLaurin is the political director at SEIU 500; his email is MclaurinM@seiu500.org.