By Margaret Sessa-Hawkins
The Senate Finance Committee approved a $10.10 minimum wage for most Maryland workers, but extended the increases over the next four years, rather than three as the House of Delegates had done. The bill also ties the minimum wage to increased state reimbursement for disability support workers, who currently average $9.82 per hour.
With five days left in the session, the committee finally acted on the House version of the minimum wage hike, HB295, which passed the House nearly three weeks ago. The bill now heads to the Senate floor, and must eventually go back to the House to approve the changes.
The bill had been held up by Senate Finance Chair Thomas Mac Middleton, who used it as leverage to get a pay increase for support staff of individuals with disabilities.
“A few years ago we agreed to raise the salaries of direct care workers,” Middleton said. “But that was before we did the minimum wage. Now the minimum wage bill has come in, and it’s eroding that increase. That’s a situation we need to address.”
Bargaining with the governor
Middleton addressed the situation by bargaining extensively with lawmakers and the governor over the make-up of HB295. These conversations resulted in a section of the bill which stipulates that the governor’s proposed budgets for the next four years would have to include a 3.5% increase in funding for community service providers.
“We are incredibly pleased with this,” Laura Howell, executive director of the Maryland Association of Community Services said. “It became clear early on there would need to be a compromise. Our original goal was 50% above the minimum wage, and this increase will work out to be around 30%. Middleton did an extraordinary job.”
Others, however, were not nearly as sanguine about what the amendment achieves.
“While this is laudable and makes us feel good, let’s look at how the budget works,” Sen. David Brinkley said. “If you’re voting for this presuming there’s going to be a 3.5% increase, no. There’s a 3.5% increase the governor proposes, the legislature can lower that amount. What the governor giveth, the BRFA taketh away,” referring to the Budget Reconciliation and Financing Act, which changes funding formulas and mandates in order to balance the budget.
Four years of increases
Under the Senate’s schedule for the wage hikes, the minimum wage will go up in a series of five increases over four years:
- Current: $7.25
- Jan. 1, 2015: $8.00
- July 1, 2015: $8.25
- July 1, 2016: $8.75
- July 1, 2017: $9.25
- July 1, 2018: $10.10
“The July 1 deadline is only beautiful to the government,” Brinkley said. “Let’s not couch this to fit the state government. Let’s do what makes sense, which is increases each year.”
However, creating annual Jan. 1 increases would have meant extending the roll-out into 2019, which Middleton told the committee, the governor was not willing to do.
The committee also debated who would be exempted from the new minimum wage and how these exemptions would work.
Tipped workers stay at $3.63
One of the biggest debates was over tipped workers. Currently, tipped workers are paid 50% of the minimum wage. However, the House froze the tipped wage at $3.63. There was some discussion in committee about reversing this decision and reverting to 50% of the minimum, but in the end it was voted down.
“Everyone is getting a bump but tip workers,” Sen. Victor Ramirez said. “From what I remember, 63% of tipped workers are women.”
There were also discussions over how to treat younger workers, and what to do about the so-called Ocean City exemption. In the end though, the bill left the senators’ desks almost identical to how it had arrived. The senators were very aware that this was the bill both the House and governor had approved, and that, this close to the end of session, any major changes could potentially sink the bill altogether.