Minimum wage debate heats up as Md. House and Senate pass separate bills

ANNAPOLIS — Legislation to raise Maryland’s minimum wage to $15 an hour has passed both chambers of the General Assembly and will go to conference committee.

Details still need to be ironed out between the state House and Senate versions of the bills, but overall the majority of each chamber has agreed to find a path to raising the minimum wage. The floor for wages in Maryland is currently $10.10 an hour, which is above the federal minimum wage and those of surrounding states.

While opponents of the bills worry that raising the state’s minimum wage further will eliminate entry-level jobs and spur companies to move out of the state, proponents continue to present it as a compromise that lifts up Maryland workers.

“I’m sure that if each of us did the bill the way we’d like to, there’d probably be 40 different versions,” said Sen. Ron Young (D-Frederick) in the Senate’s debate on Wednesday.

He cited the most recent Asset Limited, Income Constrained, Employed — commonly called ALICE — report to come out of the United Way of Frederick County in 2016, which showed the livable wage in Frederick County was $17.66 an hour, which is below the proposed $15 that could be phased in over the next six years. That number climbs to $42.02 for a family of four.

At age 12, Young’s took his first job of delivering newspapers for the Frederick News, which was the morning paper of what is now The Frederick News-Post. His mother, Viola Young, worked multiple jobs to raise him and his three siblings.

“We were very poor, and it was a real, real struggle. My mother worked 90 hours a week, and I hardly ever got to see her,” Young said.

On Wednesday, health care workers from Local 1199 of the Service Employees International Union rallied in Annapolis in support of raising the state’s minimum wage. Carrying purple and yellow signs, they marched passed the State House chanting, “Hey, hey. Ho, ho. Corporate greed has got to go.”

Betty McRae, of Baltimore City, was among the union workers to visit the state capital to demand action. McRae prepares food at University of Maryland Medical Center on the Midtown Campus and makes slightly more than minimum wage. At home, she is raising two of her grandchildren.

Life for her means going from paycheck to paycheck and often having to let a bill lapse for a month so that she can cover her rent.

“The rent is like, high, so you have to pay the rent and sacrifice the other bills,” McRae said.

Opponents to the bill have argued that the state’s minimum wage is not designed to be a livable wage, but the starting wage for new workers.

Sen. Johnny Salling (R-Baltimore County) called the proposal a “youth-killing bill” because it would take job opportunities away from young workers who start at minimum wage. He also said he supports unions, having been in one as a steelworker, but thought workers should have to move up to higher wages through hard work.

On Thursday, the state Senate voted 32-15 in favor of raising the minimum wage to $15 an hour by 2025 for companies with more than 14 employees, and 2028 for companies with 14 or less employees.

The Senate voted down attempts to amend the bill that would have required different minimum wages in the state’s urban and suburban counties or to tie any increase to Maryland’s minimum wage to its surrounding states. The chamber also voted down an amendment from Young to phase in a $15 minimum wage at the same rate for all companies.

“There’s no way to do what the bill started out as a major purpose to do, and to also hang Christmas tree lights on everything for everybody,” said Senate Finance Chairwoman Delores Kelley (D-Baltimore County) in defense of the delayed implementation.

The following day, the House of Delegates suspended the rules to consider and vote on the Senate’s version of the bill, which it had amended earlier to conform some items with the version of the bill it had already passed. Then, the body declined to concur with changes the Senate had made to the House version of the bill.

This triggered the establishment of a conference committee, where a small number of representatives from each chamber will meet and draft a unified version of the bill.

The General Assembly is scheduled to end its work on April 8.

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