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A $15 minimum wage benefits Baltimore business

Op-ed: As a small business owner in Baltimore, I urge the council and mayor to gradually raise minimum wage

The Baltimore City Council will soon take a final vote on a bill that would gradually raise the minimum wage to $15 an hour. As a small business owner, I strongly urge the council and Mayor Catherine Pugh to support this important step toward making the city a fairer, more prosperous place.

The reasons are both practical and pragmatic.

On the practical side, the bill includes an important compromise for small businesses. Companies with fewer than 50 employees will have nine years — until 2026 — to reach the $15 minimum.

A lot can happen in a decade, but I am certain the wage structure at my store will easily exceed $15 before 2026; indeed we are close to that already.

I rely heavily on the contributions of my employees and can't afford high turnover. That means rewarding employees for good work and keeping them on board with fair wages that grow steadily over time. So a minimum wage that eventually reaches $15 an hour doesn't scare me; I see cost savings from lower employee turnover and reduced expenses associated with hiring and training new employees.

My employees are my team, and I need all of them feeling valued. And while any small business has to watch its spending, it's been my experience that a higher wage makes my employees feel secure and appreciated. In turn, they do their job better, which makes customers happy, and my business grows.

It's worth noting that the bill does not apply to young workers under the age of 21. I don't like this exemption as all workers deserve a fair wage.

Another practical consideration involves impact. The proposed law would raise the wages of tens of thousands of workers in Baltimore City. That means more people will be able to reduce their reliance on public assistance programs. These workers earn 55 percent of their family's income; about 20 percent stand as their family's sole provider.

And then there's pragmatism.

I know that my employees largely spend their money right here in the city; so do employees of many other stores near us in Hampden. They don't go out to the suburbs to shop. That will be true across Baltimore. City residents will use the extra salary in their pockets to purchase goods and services at the local level, right here in Baltimore, bringing more business to stores like mine.

But take a step back and ask: What type of community do we wish to live in? We have an economic divide in this city that's growing wider. About 24 percent of the workers in Baltimore earn poverty-level wages. According to the United Way, almost half of all households in the city make less than what is required for a basic "survival" budget, and there's a huge racial wealth gap in Baltimore. The current minimum wage of $8.75 an hour amounts to $18,200 for a full-time worker when the Economic Policy Institute's Family Calculator estimates a single worker with one child needs about $28 an hour to meet basic needs.

So the wages for many Baltimore residents remain painfully low even though the economy has recovered to some extent since 2008. And now, Congress is dismantling the Affordable Care Act, which will probably mean the loss of health insurance for many working families in the city and beyond.

We live in a city of "haves" and "have-nots," and neither the federal nor state governments are moving to address the problem. Some opponents claim a higher minimum wage will increase unemployment, but rigorous studies of actual minimum wage increases show no such impact. Cities like Seattle that are phasing in the $15 wage have seen their unemployment rates actually decline and small businesses benefit because of the additional local spending.

Finally, raising wages is simply the right thing to do. I am fortunate. My business is doing well, and my family can meet its needs. I want to share the proceeds of my business with those who make it successful.

Clearly, the political divisions in Congress and in Maryland have pushed us to a point that we must rely on our city's leaders to act. I want our community to be stronger, and I'm prepared to do my part. Let's start raising the minimum wage of Baltimore workers to a living standard and a life with dignity.

Charlotte Hays Murray is the owner of Charlotte Elliott and The Bookstore Next Door in Hampden. Her email is erissa72@gmail.com.

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