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General Assembly debates pathway to $15 minimum wage in Maryland

ANNAPOLIS — Thea Bryan, 49, remembers the eviction notice.

She was working part time as a bartender in downtown Bethesda while completing a required unpaid internship for her Master of Social Work degree. At first, she was making $100 to $200 a night from her three shifts, but when customers stopped coming in, her paychecks plummeted to $50 or less.

Bryan makes only $3.63 an hour before tips, but it is difficult to get a higher-paying office job with her class and internship schedule. She relies on federal food assistance for herself and her son, and when her paycheck declined unexpectedly, she also fell short on her $1,800 monthly rent.

“I did make the decision to go back to school for an advanced degree. ... No one forced me into this situation, but I went back into bartending because of the flexibility,” said Bryan, who eventually paid the past-due rent with her student loan money.

Bryan is among the hundreds of minimum wage and tipped workers in Maryland to come to Annapolis this month to ask lawmakers to raise their wages to $15 an hour. But it is unlikely everyone will see an increase to their paychecks as lawmakers began chipping away at the bill in the House of Delegates this week.

Among the cuts was a decision by the House Economic Matters Committee to strike a phased-in wage increase for tipped workers. Starting in 2020, the workers would have seen their base pay jump to $5.25 an hour and increase annually to $15 by 2026, while still allowing tips.

The committee received testimony in support of leaving tipped workers out of the $15 minimum wage change from business owners and some service workers in the industry. Among them was Kelsey Fendlay, who lives in Westminster and has been in the food service industry for 10 years.

She makes between $35 and $40 an hour, after tips, as a server at a restaurant that caters to an upper middle-class clientele. Fendlay said she has built a career around anticipating clients’ needs. She strongly disagreed that all minimum wage workers should be entitled to $15 an hour.

“I don’t believe a lot of people deserve to be handed $15,” Fendlay said.

However, it is dangerous to assume that all women working in the food service industry have the same experience and opportunities as Fendlay, said Diana Ramirez, a policy advocate for the Restaurant Opportunities Center.

Ramirez advocated for Maryland to adopt “one fair wage,” which would set the same minimum wage for tipped and non-tipped workers in the state. It’s an economic justice issue, she said, and it helps protect women, who often fill low-paying restaurant jobs.

“When you tell women, ‘I’ll only pay you $3.63 and you have to make the rest on the customer’s whim,’ they have to put up with customer behavior,” which could include sexual harassment that the server does not report because they need the tip, Ramirez said.

By not tying wages to the customers, then servers and restaurants are able to better set a standard of acceptable behavior, Ramirez said.

County choice

There are growing concerns in the less populated areas of the state, however, that a $15 minimum wage may not be appropriate for all counties.

In western Maryland, some towns are only a few miles from Pennsylvania, where the minimum wage is $7.25, and a short distance from West Virginia, which has a minimum wage of $8.75.

“Fifteen dollars would decimate the economy in rural areas,” said Del. Wayne Hartman (R-Wicomico & Worcester) as he introduced an amendment to the minimum wage bill on the floor of the House on Wednesday.

His amendment would divide the state into two tiers with Baltimore city, Montgomery, Prince George’s, Howard, Anne Arundel and Baltimore counties moving to a $15 minimum wage, and the others staying at $10.10. Del. Neil Parrott (R-Washington) also proposed a separate amendment to allow counties to set their own minimum wage. Both amendments failed.

All three of Frederick County’s Republican delegates voted in support of the amendments, as did Del. Ken Kerr (D-Frederick), who supported Hartman’s tiered minimum wage approach. Kerr explained he wants the bill to pass, and the amendments he voted for would raise the minimum wage in a way more acceptable to his constituents.

“I sympathize with my fellow delegates who are in rural areas and in areas where neighboring states have much lower minimums,” Kerr said by email later on Wednesday. “The convenience for residents in these areas being able to cross state lines — often just a few miles away — and access goods and services at a lower cost, has the potential to do harm to the businesses and workers in these areas.”

Ricarra Jones, who is the policy director of the health care union 1199SEIU that is a main supporter of raising the minimum wage to $15, pushed back on the notion that Maryland would be at a competitive disadvantage if it had a minimum wage approximately double that of neighboring states.

“In most cases, most people aren’t going to leave Maryland to work for half,” Jones said.

Loss of business

The potential loss of business from the higher compensation costs of raising the minimum wage to $15 an hour, however, was one of the reasons Del. Jesse Pippy (R-Frederick & Carroll) did not plan to vote in support of the bill.

An adult day care center in Frederick County that receives the majority of its funding through Medicare and Medicaid reimbursements set by the federal government contacted Pippy and asked him to oppose the bill. The business may have to reduce benefits or lay off employees in order to meet the proposed wage requirements, Pippy said.

As currently written, the bill would raise the minimum wage to:

  • $11 per hour beginning Jan. 1, 2020.

  • $11.75 per hour beginning Jan. 1, 2021.

  • $12.50 per hour beginning Jan. 1, 2022.

  • $13.25 per hour beginning Jan. 1, 2023.

  • $14 per hour beginning Jan. 1, 2024.

  • $15 per hour beginning Jan. 1, 2025.

Some supporters of raising the minimum wage — including Sen. Ron Young (D-Frederick) — say the bill does not go far enough, because $15 is still not a livable wage. At 40 hours a week, a person making a $15 an hour would make $600 a week before taxes.

“I hear the argument the other side is making, however, the minimum wage is not meant to be a livable wage,” Pippy said. “We do our best to provide opportunity for folks, a competitive job market where they have more options [and] jobs that pay different amounts.”

The best way to keep Maryland businesses competitive is to leave the free market alone and allow workers to move from low-paying jobs to higher-paying opportunities, he said. He did this himself — moving up from delivering car parts and cooking fries to working at a bank.

As the owner of a law firm in Emmitsburg, Del. Dan Cox (R-Frederick & Carroll) said raising the minimum wage to $15 an hour would personally prohibit him from hiring college students in the summer to get experience working in a law firm.

Cox has hired up to six students at a time, and they have worked for less than $15 an hour, he said.

The Maryland Chamber of Commerce has also opposed the proposed increase to $15 due to its potential negative effects on businesses in the state. More than 100 of its members wrote or provided oral testimony in opposition to the bill, said Sam Schlaich, a policy analyst with the chamber.

The House Economic Matters Committee’s amendments improved the bill, but there are still changes that need to be done, he said. The chamber is waiting to see how the Senate Finance Committee amends the bill and what happens in the Senate itself.

“We’re not against people getting $15, but when you legislate it, you have to look at the peripheral effects,” Schlaich said.

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