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Baltimore’s fight for $15 moves along — slowly but surely

After an arduous five-hour labor committee hearing this past Wednesday, the fight for increasing Baltimore’s minimum wage has trudged along with increased support within City Council. Last August, the bill failed to garner enough votes and was sent back to committee.

This time around, with eight new Democrats at City Council and a few new amendments, the bill has passed through committee with four votes for and one vote against it, and could go to a preliminary vote with a full Council as early as this Monday (03/06).

The bill aims to increase Baltimore’s minimum wage to $15 an hour by 2022, a move that worried small business-owners across the city. In an attempt to compromise, new amendments now allow small businesses (those with 50 or fewer employees or an annual gross income of $400,000 or less) until 2026 to reach the city’s wage goal. Additionally, the amendments exclude workers under 21, trainees and interns from the new minimum wage.

Still, there were many testifying against the bill – mainly business owners or representatives. Donald C. Fry, President of the Greater Baltimore Committee, the “region’s premier business advocacy group,” released a position statement highlighting some of the issues the bill presents to businesses.

Among those worries are the increased cost for businesses to operate and the “additional competitive burden” the bill would place on the city, as an increased wage in Baltimore could potentially cause businesses to move to neighboring counties, where they could enjoy lower costs, lower taxes and a lower crime rate. This “island effect” was a main point of contention for the opposing panelists.

“There’s no question that the sponsors and supporters of this bill are well-intended. But the GBC and businesses in general have serious concerns that the passage of this bill would be counterproductive to this city’s competitiveness.” Fry said in his testimony.

“Our greatest competition comes from the surrounding counties. These counties, not the city, will become more attractive locations for retailers if Baltimore City decides to unilaterally raise the minimum wage” said Kirby Fowler, President of the Downtown Partnership of Baltimore.

Representatives from retailers, restaurants and grocery stores testified against the bill, citing their low profit margins high business costs.

“If many weren’t multi-jurisdictional operators, they could not remain open in the city” said Cailey Locklair Tolle, President of the Maryland Retailers Association, citing grocery stores operating at a loss in Baltimore food deserts. In her testimony, Tolle stated that more residents would end up living in food deserts, as an increase in minimum wage would push markets and grocers out of business.

Councilman Bill Henry was quick to rebut statements by the opposition:

“If you as a business owner have to pay your employee less than a living wage so you can make more than a living wage, then that’s the problem with your business model. To everyone opposing this legislation, what do you make an hour?” he said.

“If you’re going to be here to complain, please be prepared to explain to us why you are so close to insolvency that it would be a practical difficulty for you to pay the employees that make your business run more.” Henry said to a wave of applause.

Testifying in favor of the bill was Anthony Williams, a longtime Baltimore resident who has struggled with homelessness and mental illness. After getting a job paying $15 an hour and recurring to homelessness programs, Williams was able to find a place to live.

In the end, the bill passed through committee with council members Mary Pat Clarke, Bill Henry, committee chair Shannon Sneed and Councilman Robert Stokes voting in favor. Council member Eric Costello was the only vote against it.

“Fifteen dollars are not going to make anyone rich” said Clarke, the bill’s chief sponsor. “We’re trying to help people who currently can’t make ends meet.”