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Advocates, Maryland lawmakers seek to raise minimum hourly wage to $15 by 2023

Advocates, Maryland lawmakers seek to raise minimum hourly wage to $15 by 2023
Maryland state Sen. Cory McCray, a Baltimore Democrat, speaks in favor of increasing the state's minimum wage to $15 per hour on Jan. 14, 2019, in Annapolis. (Pamela Wood / The Baltimore Sun)

Advocates and lawmakers began their push Monday to gradually raise Maryland’s minimum wage to $15 by 2023, a starting point for negotiations on what’s expected to be one of the hottest topics of this year’s General Assembly session.

The state’s minimum wage is currently $10.10 per hour.

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“For far too long, working families in Maryland have been struggling to cover the cost of their basic necessities,” said Delegate Diana Fennell, a Prince George’s County Democrat who is sponsoring the bill with Sen. Cory McCray, a Baltimore Democrat.

Fennell said the increase “is long overdue.”

At a news conference flanked by dozens of supporters, Fennell and McCray urged fellow lawmakers to sponsor a “clean bill” without exemptions that would whittle away the benefits of a wage increase.

“We know that right now is the time to pass the minimum wage. … We know that at our hospitals, we know that our auto mechanics, we know the contractors for local government and state government do not make $15,” McCray said.

Fennell and McCray’s bill, which they expect to introduce Tuesday, would raise the minimum wage to $11 per hour later this year, then add $1 each year until reaching $15 in 2023.

After that, the minimum wage would be indexed to the rate of inflation, so it would automatically increase.

The bill also would remove exemptions from paying farm workers and some young employees the minimum wage.

The bill would allow any county to increase the minimum wage locally, as Montgomery County has. The minimum wage in Montgomery County is $12 for companies with fewer than 50 employees and $12.25 for larger companies. Montgomery’s minimum wage will rise to eventually reach $15.

Supporters of the statewide minimum wage bill — including unions, progressive groups and religious leaders — are hoping to avoid additions to the bill, such as provisions for different rates for small and large businesses or that would create different wages for different parts of the state. Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller, a Democrat, has suggested minimum wages based on geography.

“We are absolutely opposed to any carve-outs or attempts to weaken the bill,” said Ricarra Jones of the Service Employees International Union and the “Fight for $15” campaign.

Some pro-business groups are preparing for debates over the minimum wage. Michael O’Halloran, state director the National Federation of Independent Businesses, predicted an intense debate.

“This will be the issue of the session,” he said.

O’Halloran said many small businesses would struggle if they had to pay workers more.

“The idea of a one-size-fits-all mandate — whether it is a $15 minimum wage or a mandatory paid leave program — each business is unique, and when it comes to labor costs like this, you have to take each business one at a time,” O’Halloran said in an interview.

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The advocates for increasing the minimum wage say there are business owners who support the increase. At Monday’s news conference, Brian England, owner of BA Auto Care in Columbia, spoke about how paying his workers more than minimum wage has inspired loyalty among employees and improved customer service. England belongs to a group called Business for a Fair Minimum Wage.

Supporters also have at least 70 lawmakers who have pledged to support the bill and to vote against weakening amendments.

Miller and House Speaker Michael Busch, a Democrat, support raising the minimum wage, while Republican Gov. Larry Hogan has taken a dimmer view of the proposal. He’s raised concerns that it could chase businesses to states with lower wages, and he’s questioned whether it might hurt workers more than it helps them.

Pennsylvania and Virginia pay the federal minimum wage of $7.25 per hour.

Delaware and West Virginia have a minimum wage of $8.75, with Delaware’s scheduled to increase to $9.25 this fall. The minimum wage in the District of Columbia is the highest in the nation at $13.25, going up to $14 this summer.

The General Assembly didn’t pass bills last year to raise Maryland’s minimum wage.

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