Democrats, unions launch push for statewide $15 minimum wage

Sen. Richard Madaleno speaks as the campaign to raise Maryland's minimum wage to $15 an hour launches Monday.

A coalition of Democrats, union leaders and workers launched a campaign to raise Maryland’s minimum hourly wage to $15 on Monday, saying they chose to do so on Martin Luther King Jr. Day to carry on his message of justice and fairness.

They are proposing to reach that wage floor by 2023, a move they say would benefit about 570,000 workers, about a fifth of the state’s work force. They cited data from a United Way study released last year that showed that 35 percent of Maryland households struggle to afford basic necessities.


“No one in the state of Maryland should work full time and be in poverty,” said Sen. Richard S. Madaleno Jr., a Montgomery County Democrat who is one of the proposal’s lead sponsors, at a rally Monday evening in Annapolis.

The campaign begins two months after Montgomery County adopted a minimum wage increase that will reach $15 by 2021. But it could face stiff opposition, given Mayor Catherine Pugh’s veto of $15 minimum-wage legislation in Baltimore and with the odds of a veto by Republican Gov. Larry Hogan. All of Hogan’s Democratic challengers, including Madaleno, have expressed support for a $15 minimum wage.


A Hogan spokesman could not be reached Monday evening for comment on the proposal.

Campaign organizers said their slogan, “Fight for $15,” reflects the debate they are expecting.

“It’s gonna be a fight,” said Ricarra Jones, political organizer for health care workers union 1199SEIU.

But after the legislature voted last week to override Hogan’s veto of legislation to extend sick leave to hundreds of thousands of workers, Jones said she is hopeful.

“This session is off to a great start for workers,” she said.

Under legislation enacted in 2014, Maryland’s minimum hourly wage is set to peak at $10.10 per hour this July.

Montgomery County is the only jurisdiction in Maryland on track for a $15 minimum wage. It would reach that ceiling in 2021 under legislation adopted in November.

The Baltimore City Council passed legislation last year to join Montgomery, enacting a $15 wage by 2022. But Pugh vetoed the bill, saying she feared it would be costly and send businesses fleeing from the city.


Cities and states elsewhere have been boosting the minimum wage. It will reach $15 in Washington, D.C., in 2020; in New York some time after 2020, depending on inflation; and in California by 2022.

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The federal minimum wage is $7.25 per hour, but 29 states and D.C. have established higher hourly wage standards, according to the National Conference on State Legislatures.

The proposal is expected to face strong opposition from businesses that argue that raising the minimum wage actually kills jobs. Research released last year on Seattle’s minimum wage increase to $13 per hour in 2016, on its way to $15 by 2021, reduced payrolls and cut low-wage workers earnings by an average of $125 per month, but the study was controversial because critics said it left out major employers such as Amazon.

The Maryland $15 coalition includes some businesses who disagree, and say that raising wages decreases turnover and drives consumer demand.

MOM’s Organic Market increased its starting hourly wage to $12 two years ago, and the company, which has nine stores in Maryland, supports a statewide $15 minimum, said Emily Ellis, a regional manager for the grocery chain. Raising wages helped workers’ productivity and engagement, she said.

Organizers said they chose to launch their campaign Monday to commemorate the 50th anniversary of King’s “Poor People’s Campaign.” King was assassinated weeks before a May 1968 march on Washington to protest economic inequality and injustice.


Del. Shelly Hettleman, a Baltimore County Democrat, said half of the workers who would benefit from the wage increase are people of color, and most of them are women. About 40 percent are aged 40 or older, she said.

“Dr. King was calling for economic justice,” Hettleman said. “On this Martin Luther King Day, let us carry on his crusade for economic fairness.”