Fairness for caregivers [Editorial]

If Maryland moves to raise its minimum wage to $10.10 an hour — as it should — employers around the state are going to have to adjust the way they do business, even if they don't presently have any minimum wage workers. Once those with lower skills and less demanding jobs are making the same amount as people who were previously making a bit above the minimum wage, employers will have little choice but to increase salaries more generally if they want to maintain a high-quality workforce. In fact, that ripple effect is one of the most salient benefits of a minimum wage increase.

But Gov. Martin O'Malley, who is the chief backer of the $10.10 proposal, is now discovering that the same principle applies to him as well. His top legislative priority for the year is being held hostage by a Senate committee chairman who insists that it be paired with an increase in the pay for caregivers for developmentally disabled Marylanders, which is effectively set by the governor through the state budget. Even though the federal government picks up much of the tab for these wages, a substantial increase would be costly for the state in the long run. Even so, the governor needs to quickly negotiate a settlement on this issue, for two reasons.


The first is that it's the right thing to do. Advocates for the developmentally disabled and the mostly non-profit organizations that provide care for them argue persuasively that without a significant wage increase to accompany a rising minimum wage, the pool of qualified workers willing to take on these physically and emotionally demanding jobs will dry up. Caregivers must complete extensive training and pass criminal background checks, in addition to meeting other requirements. The job entails everything from assisting disabled individuals with the most personal, intimate activities of daily living — bathing, grooming and so on — to helping them with transportation, employment, cooking cleaning and more. The burnout rate is high as it is; The ARC Baltimore estimates its turnover among community living caregivers is 35 percent a year. If these workers could make the same salary flipping burgers or bagging groceries, many probably would.

Senate Finance Committee Chairman Thomas M. "Mac" Middleton, who is holding up the minimum wage bill, introduced legislation this year along with Del. Guy Guzzone to peg wages for these caregivers at 50 percent above the minimum wage, whatever it is at any given time. Mr. Middleton is now in negotiations with the governor and has offered a compromise at 35 percent. That would more or less peg the wage at the same level it is now relative to other workers, though it would not make up for ground caregivers have already lost during the last decade as minimum wages have increased faster than their salaries.


The state already knows that it costs more to provide these services than the wages it's paying to community caregivers; after all, workers directly employed by the state who do effectively the same jobs earn substantially more, in some cases, twice as much. If Maryland is going to fulfill the implicit promise it made when it started closing institutional homes for the developmentally disabled a generation ago, it needs to do what it takes to ensure quality, consistent care.

The second reason the governor needs to act quickly is that even apart from this issue, the minimum wage legislation faces some significant challenges. Though the bill passed 89-46 in the House of Delegates, it contained a handful of amendments that weakened Mr. O'Malley's initial proposal, including provisions that eliminate the automatic indexing of the wage to inflation, grant an over-broad exemption for amusement industry employees and alter rules governing tipped wages that could cause some workers to fall behind.

The Senate is working from the House version, and it is considering some ideas that would weaken the measure further, including the possibility of a longer phase-in time, which would effectively dilute the benefits of the bill right off the bat. The longer negotiations over wages for care workers continue, the less time legislators will have to coalesce around a final version of the legislation and the greater the risk that the bill could fail to pass before the General Assembly adjourns. Mr. O'Malley should do what's right for 18,000 caregivers, and he should make sure the process doesn't prevent legislation that would help half a million Marylanders.

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