Opinion: New $15 minimum wage raises hard issues left out of debate

Opinion: New $15 minimum wage raises hard issues left out of debate

By Richard D. Douglas

For MarylandReporter.com

Here is a question for the Maryland General Assembly: Will Maryland’s higher minimum wage also create pressure to increase Davis-Bacon and other regional wage schedules? How will that affect the state’s construction budgets and Maryland taxation?

Several possible consequences of the General Assembly’s decision to hike Maryland’s minimum wage to $15 over Governor Hogan’s veto have been left out of the public debate, at least so far. Here are thoughts on a few of them.

More independent contracts, fewer employees

The Maryland General Assembly’s rush to $15 will probably increase business demand for strategies to classify more Maryland workers as independent contractors (“IRS Form 1099 workers”) instead of employees (“IRS Form W-2 workers”). Why?

Because businesses are not obliged to pay the $15 hourly wage to 1099 workers. Many businesses will be forced by the new minimum wage to beat the bushes for ways to stay profitable, and indeed, to stay in business at all. 1099 workers may be an attractive option.

This status offers independence but brings genuine financial challenges. For example, 1099 workers must pay all of their own Social Security contributions, which impose a substantial financial burden. In contrast, employers pay half of the Social Security contribution for their W-2 workers.

Unlike W-2 workers, 1099 workers must themselves account for and report their income to the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) quarterly. 1099 workers are also responsible for making quarterly estimated income tax payments themselves directly to IRS and the Maryland comptroller.

In contrast, employers perform the required income reporting for their W-2 employees and make the payments on behalf of W-2 workers through payday deductions.

1099 workers who lack discipline or cash flow to make required reports and payments on time, who underpay, or even fail to pay quarterly estimated income taxes can expect a large tax bill, penalties, and interest liability each year on April 15. Today, many 1099 workers are drowning in such liability.

Who can be a contractor?

In the background, there is a regulatory battle between government authorities and business owners over whether an individual properly may be classified as a 1099 independent contractor or a W-2 employees. There are rules, but it is sometimes a judgment call, and enforcement is lax.

This battle is not new, but it will almost certainly take on new life in Maryland with the General Assembly’s action and lead to federal litigation.

In short, significant new financial burdens may fall to workers who either find themselves abruptly converted from W-2 status to 1099 status, or are engaged as 1099 workers from their first day on the job.

Temp agencies may proliferate

The Maryland General Assembly’s rush to $15 will result in a proliferation of “temp” agencies and labor contractors. Logically — and foreseeably — Maryland business owners will look for ways to insulate themselves from a work force which suddenly has become much more expensive.

A solution already used in many government and commercial workplaces is the “temp” agency or labor contractor. Such agencies generally have lower overhead than the businesses they serve, especially if the temp agency offers limited or no medical or retirement benefits.

Such agencies thus may be in a position to insulate the business client financially from the worker, and absorb the shock of the higher minimum wage while remaining profitable. The upshot: Maryland W-2 workers may find themselves shifted from a direct employer to a temp agency, and — in my opinion — a more precarious existence.

None of these strategies for employers are new, but they may become more prevalent.

Immigration issues

The Maryland General Assembly’s $15 minimum wage requirement makes no distinction between alien border violators and U.S. and lawfully-admitted alien workers.

The new law is a windfall for border violators who carry employment authorization cards tied to Temporary Protected Status, removal proceedings, bad-faith asylum proceedings, or other provisions in our Alice in Wonderland federal immigration law.

New U.S. citizen and lawfully-admitted alien workers in Maryland already face an uphill battle to compete in a labor market overwhelmed by alien border violators. The General Assembly just made that uphill battle steeper.

Lack of effective business voices

Finally, a word about something that is not, strictly speaking, a consequence of the new law, but instead, a possible indicator of why it happened: the lack of an effective business voice in Maryland.

Ultimately, the cure for Maryland’s anti-business legislature is the ballot box. To the extent Maryland business has a voice at all beyond Gov. Larry Hogan’s strenuous efforts to soldier through, however, that voice seems to me to be beholden to the hard-left that runs the General Assembly rather than to business owners.

Maryland businesses who pay dues to organizations ostensibly speaking for them in Annapolis are not getting their money’s worth. Rank and file members should replace the salaried leadership of such business organizations and rebuild.

These organizations must fight year round for Maryland businesses, district by district, and not just during the General Assembly’s annual legislative session.

Such organizations should also staunchly support pro-business candidates and just as staunchly challenge anti-business incumbents.

After 32 years in Maryland and several efforts at public office, my conclusion is that the front offices of business advocacy organizations in Maryland too often pull their punches to stay in good legislative graces, while the rank and file job creators end up being hammered all the same.

Exhibit A for this eminently solvable problem is the General Assembly’s unfortunate rush to $15.

Richard Douglas, lawyer, sole practitioner and Iraq vet, is a small business owner in College Park, and a former Republican candidate for U.S. Senate.

 

About The Author

Len Lazarick

len@marylandreporter.com

Len Lazarick was the founding editor and publisher of MarylandReporter.com and is currently the president of its nonprofit corporation and chairman of its board He was formerly the State House bureau chief of the daily Baltimore Examiner from its start in April 2006 to its demise in February 2009. He was a copy editor on the national desk of the Washington Post for eight years before that, and has spent decades covering Maryland politics and government.

4 Comments

  1. Robert Feria

    ….yeah except businesses already do this, and have been screwing workers for years with this independent contractor crap. That’s nothing new. And if they keep doing it, workers will get fed up and pass a law to curb that behavior, too. So dont act like this is some terrible thing– you’re just looking for a negative to report on and trying to scare people from bettering their own lives. Their lives were garbage before.

    • Mary P.

      The way to help people better their own lives is not to raise the minimum wage but to provide training so that they can move on to better paying jobs. There is a real scarcity right now of qualified individuals in the skilled trades and there are community colleges and trade schools that have certificate programs in these areas. As a taxpayer, I’d certainly support government programs to help minimum wage workers find training programs that are right for them so they can find better paying jobs.

  2. david hwang

    I am done running a business in Maryland. I had restaurant since 2005. I might start back after dust has settled with $15 minimum wage. Small business just cannot raise price while expenditure is going upwards. When I see big Mac meal priced around $10, that might be time to start back again.

  3. Mary P.

    There will not be a proliferation of temp agencies as a result of this bill. Temp agencies have to be able to make a profit and while using a temp agency relieves the employer of paying directly to the IRS SS & Medicare taxes, it doesn’t eliminate it because employment agencies have to treat these temps as their employees and in turn agencies build these costs in to what they charge the employer.

    No, the outcome will be that small businesses will cut employee hours and employee positions. They will try and find a way to make do with less. They have to or this bill will put them out of business. Expect to see more ordering kiosk at fast food and fast casual dining places and more self-checkout lines at grocery and hardware stores. The only person who profits from increasing the minimum wage is the creative inventor who finds a way to replace human labor with automation. Minimum wage employees certainly don’t.

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