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Baltimore City Council bill would require essential businesses pay workers premium during pandemic

Detric McCoy, left, who supervises the new home delivery operation for Taharka Brothers, makes a delivery of eight pints of ice cream to Dan Chapman of Guilford. Baltimore City Council is considering a bill that could require extra pay for essential workers, such as those who make deliveries, at companies with at least 100 employees.
Detric McCoy, left, who supervises the new home delivery operation for Taharka Brothers, makes a delivery of eight pints of ice cream to Dan Chapman of Guilford. Baltimore City Council is considering a bill that could require extra pay for essential workers, such as those who make deliveries, at companies with at least 100 employees. (Amy Davis)

The Baltimore City Council wants businesses to pay essential employees a premium for working during the pandemic, a measure that proposes to put an extra $10 to $25 per shift in people’s wallets.

Council President Brandon M. Scott said the bill, introduced Monday, would better compensate cashiers, delivery drivers, security guards and others who are performing essential jobs during the pandemic. The legislation applies to employees of companies with at least 100 workers.

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The extra pay backs up the sentiment that such essential workers are “heroes,” Scott said. The pay bump would not apply to salaried employees or certain union workers.

“They have been heroes all along, but many people during this COVID crisis see the value now,” said Scott, who is ruuning for mayor. “They are putting their lives at risk and their family’s lives at risk, and we have to recognize their sacrifice.”

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Mayor Bernard C. “Jack” Young, who is running for re-election, has not taken a position on the legislation, spokesman Lester Davis said. The administration must review the bill and consider whether it is legally sound.

Donald C. Fry, president of the Greater Baltimore Committee, said the business community is trying to assess the financial burden the legislation would create for essential employers. He said his group only learned about the bill a day before it was introduced, making it difficult to have serious discussions about the fiscal impact on companies doing business in Baltimore.

“There are business that are performing essential services to benefit a large portion of the population, and to throw an additional financial burden on them when we don’t know the magnitude of the cost is somewhat problematic,” Fry said. “I have talked to a number of companies that are trying to analyze the financial impact. A lot are working on a very thin margin anyway.”

As the business community continues to evaluate the proposal, Scott said he remains sensitive to the financial pressure facing companies. The bill’s introduction, he said, is a starting point for discussions.

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“I want folks to come to the table with actual solutions," said Scott, a Democrat. “How can we accomplish our shared goal to support those who are risking their lives? We have to honor our heroes.”

If the bill passes, the pay increase would be offered until the health emergency is over. It would require companies to pay certain workers an extra $10 for a shift of four hours or less, $20 for a 4- to 8-hour shift and $25 for shifts longer than 8 hours.

Businesses would be required to post notice of workers’ rights to premium pay and keep records to prove the extra compensation was paid. Fines and penalties would apply to businesses that don’t provide the pay bump.

Essential jobs are those defined as such under Republican Gov. Larry Hogan’s executive order. Generally, essential workers include those necessary to the supply chain, health care systems and public works operations. They are construction workers, convenience store clerks and food delivery drivers.

The bill applies to city workers, but not federal or state employees.

Some government workers already have received premium pay during the outbreak. Young announced a “pandemic mission critical stipend" in March for key city personnel. Front line workers, including firefighters, paramedics and police officers, are receiving an additional $200 bi-weekly. Other qualifying city workers are getting $100 more.

In April, Maryland’s state government began offering some workers an extra $3.13 an hour, or about $250 more for each two-week pay period. The state was temporarily giving some employees a double-time rate before that.

In other business, the City Council fast-tracked and gave final approval to a bill that would allow for streets to be temporarily closed and give pedestrians and cyclists more room to social distance and exercise during the pandemic. The bills calls for at least 25 miles of city streets to be opened up throughout Baltimore, or roughly 500 city blocks.

Scott said as temperatures shoot up this summer, many city residents will be forced outside, and they will need places offering enough room for them to spread out. Some streets will be closed entirely, while others will have dedicated lanes for cars, bikes and pedestrians.

The Young administration has opened up some streets, including some in Druid Hill Park and around Lake Montebello, Davis said. But devoting resources to create the extra space is a balance when the city’s focus is containing the outbreak’s spread, he said.

“The mayor’s overarching message is, people need to stay home,” Davis said.

In a letter to the council, Steve Sharkey, director of the city’s Department of Transportation, said he agreed with the spirit of the legislation but expressed concern about closing streets so quickly. Some of the troubles he outlined included getting public feedback during the pandemic, the availability of staff to evaluate what streets to close and the manpower to make the closures.

Road closures have spawned bitter neighborhood disputes in the past, including discord over protected bicycle lanes in Roland Park and Canton. Bicyclists protested the removal of the Roland Avenue lane last year after drivers said it made parking more difficult and dangerous.

Councilman Eric Costello noted the previous challenges the city faced in getting consensus behind lane closures. He said while it was clear the bill had the council’s support, he did not understand "what the rush is to get something of that magnitude done in such a short time.”

A hearing also will be scheduled to determine the future of the old Langston Hughes Elementary School building in Park Heights. The council introduced a bill to authorize the sale of the old Northwest school, which was shuttered about five years ago amid community protests. A price for the building hasn’t been determined.

Councilwoman Sharon Green Middleton said the building has been operating for several years as the Langston Hughes Community, Business and Resource Center. Among a long list of services provided there are a library, an accredited nursing program, a food pantry, free wireless internet, child care and Mandarin classes, she said.

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“It has been a savior not just in our community, but the whole city,” Middleton said.

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Baltimore Sun reporter Pamela Wood contributed to this article.

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