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$15 minimum wage bill advances to Md. House floor vote

A bill to increase Maryland’s minimum wage to $15 an hour was voted out of committee on Monday — with amendments that would exempt some workers and slow its implementation — and is expected to go to the House floor later this week.

Democratic legislative leaders indicated early in the 90-day legislative session that a minimum-wage bill would pass but that its form would be a matter of intense debate. As lawmakers reach the session’s halfway point, they are accelerating the push to send the legislative proposal to the governor by late March.

Efforts to raise the minimum wage in past years failed to advance.

Maryland is poised to join a handful of deep-blue states, including California, New York and New Jersey, and the District in raising the wage floor to $15. Several other states are considering similar minimum-wage legislation — a cornerstone of progressive politics that has become a Democratic economic agenda item for the 2020 elections.

“The $15 minimum was a progressive flank issue two years ago, and now it’s the consensus position for every Democratic candidate and Democratic governor in blue, purple and even in red states,” said Paul Sonn of the National Employment Law Project Action Fund.

In Maryland, bill sponsor Del. Diana M. Fennell (D-Prince George’s) advocated a “clean bill” that would include a broader spectrum of workers than current law allows, tie the increases to inflation and phase in the wage increases immediately, bringing Maryland to $15 by 2023.

But business groups and the state restaurant association have been lobbying heavily against the wage increase, arguing that it would result in job losses and lost hours for workers and would hamper the state’s economic competitiveness.

A House Economic Matters Committee work group recommended several changes that received preliminary approval Monday, including measures to delay the wage increase schedule and preserve a tipped-wage credit for restaurant workers.

“It’s a balancing act,” said Committee Chair Dereck E. Davis (D-Prince George’s). “It is our job, from my vantage point, to put something together that is sustainable and livable and something everyone can handle.”

Several members said they were concerned that the original bill placed an undue burden on businesses, particularly small businesses, that are still adjusting to last July’s wage increase and new paid-sick-leave requirements. The changes would give those business owners more “predictability,” said Del. C.T. Wilson (D-Charles).

“I think we are doing as best we can with the room we have to move,” he said.

The version approved late Monday includes provisions that would:

●Exempt agricultural workers from the minimum wage.

●Lower the age at which youth workers can collect a full minimum wage from 20 to 18. Before that change, workers younger than 20 could collect only 85 percent of the wage.

●Delay the implementation schedule by two years, setting the first wage increase to $11 by January 2020. Maryland would not reach $15 until 2025.

● Include a provision allowing lawmakers to temporarily suspend a scheduled wage increase one time, if economic conditions worsen and require lawmakers to freeze wages to help the economy.

●Remove the measure indexing wage increases above $15 to the consumer price index.

●Preserve the current tipped-wage credit of $3.63. Employees receive this base rate but if their tips do not add up to the minimum wage threshold, employers have to make up the difference.

The proposal is expected to head to the full House on Tuesday or Wednesday. House leaders said that the bill will probably move out of their chamber but that they expect more amendments and obstacles once it reaches the Senate.

Gov. Larry Hogan (R) has not indicated a position on the bill.

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