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Maryland’s higher minimum wage - a boost that’s needed now more than ever | COMMENTARY

Maryland's minimum wage is scheduled to rise 75 cents to $11.75 an hour on Jan. 1 but would be delayed on year under a proposal business groups have presented to the Maryland Board of Public Works. (AP Photo/Mark Lennihan, File)
Maryland's minimum wage is scheduled to rise 75 cents to $11.75 an hour on Jan. 1 but would be delayed on year under a proposal business groups have presented to the Maryland Board of Public Works. (AP Photo/Mark Lennihan, File) (Mark Lennihan/AP)

Last month, Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf renewed his longtime push for raising his state’s minimum wage to $12 an hour on the grounds that it would help workers recover from the economic losses suffered during the coronavirus pandemic. He wants to raise it 50 cents annually until it reaches $15-an-hour. But even that won’t make Pennsylvania a top minimum wage jurisdiction. In nearby D.C., the minimum wage is $14 an hour. Nearly two-thirds of U.S. states impose a minimum wage above the federal requirement. And the highest — Massachusetts ($12.75), New York ($11.80-to-$15 depending on the region), Oregon ($11.25) and Washington ($13.50) — all have strong economies, or at least they did before the virus arrived.

Yet naysayers persist, and in Maryland, that’s resulted in a push to convince the Board of Public Works to delay for one year a planned Jan. 1 rate increase that would raise Maryland’s minimum pay from the current $11 an hour to $11.75. The Maryland Chamber of Commerce and National Federation of Independent Business say a freeze in pay is needed to make it easier for companies, particularly small businesses, to hire workers during the recovery. The less costly the hire, these groups reason, the more likely for businesses to expand their payrolls. And these minimum wage opponents probably already have one vote on the three-member board: Gov. Larry Hogan last year vetoed legislation gradually increasing the state minimum wage from $10.10 to $15 by 2025. The General Assembly overturned that veto within hours and by wide margins.

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Given how Treasurer Nancy Kopp, a legislative appointee, generally backs up General Assembly actions, that leaves the matter in the hands of Comptroller Peter Franchot. In a statement released Tuesday, Mr. Franchot’s spokesperson said he is “committed to maintaining the current implementation schedule in the increase in minimum wage.” We support that position. Not despite recent events but because of them. If there’s one thing that both the pandemic and the uproar over race relations has demonstrated clearly is that this nation continues to be plagued by income inequality. Too-low wages only worsens this division, and minorities pay the price most of all as they are overrepresented in both COVID-19 diagnoses and in the ranks of the working poor.

Opponents of a higher minimum wage have long cried wolf on this subject. When Governor Hogan vetoed the enabling legislation last year, he warned that the higher minimum wage would “devastate” Maryland’s economy. Maryland’s seasonally adjusted monthly unemployment rate was 3.4% last December when the minimum wage was $10.10 and 3.3% in January after it rose to $11. And while it’s certainly true, in theory at least, that higher costs, wages included, can slow job growth, that’s simply not been the experience in other states that have followed this path. Nobody is advocating for $25 an hour or other exorbitant pay. At the heart of the living wage movement is a desire for fair recompense and an income that doesn’t have to be supplemented by tax dollars through safety net programs like Medicaid and SNAP.

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Maryland’s minimum wage, like many others, even gives a discount for small businesses (15 cents less per hour next year) that might be struggling to make ends meet or to hire teens for entry-level work (at 85% of minimum wage). And that the state is on a five-year path to a respectable wage shows lawmakers are mindful of the challenges facing any business owner, pre- or post-coronavirus. What the business community always claimed to seek was a predictable, gradual path to follow. It was there in January; it should remain in place today.

It would be especially maddening if, as others have pointed out, Maryland acted to reduce the pay of those front-line, low-wage workers from grocery store clerks to hospital janitors who have proven themselves so vital during the pandemic in keeping communities fed and well. If anything, they deserve greater recompense. A point not lost on Target which recently announced it is raising its lowest wage from $13 to $15 an hour by July 5. Amazon raised its minimum wage to $15 as well — two years ago. Given Maryland’s relatively high cost of living (appropriate in a state that leads the nation in median household income), the higher minimum wage is overdue. Let’s not get in its way now.

The Baltimore Sun editorial board — made up of Opinion Editor Tricia Bishop, Deputy Editor Andrea K. McDaniels and writer Peter Jensen — offers opinions and analysis on news and issues relevant to readers. It is separate from the newsroom.

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