Wade Henderson is president and chief executive of the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights. Christine Owens is the executive director of the National Employment Law Project.
One of the most inspiring movements in recent history has been the Fight for $15, led by low-wage workers who organized to win higher wages and other benefits in their workplaces, communities and states. With the retrenchment of workers’ rights and civil rights we now face at the federal level, local initiatives such as the Fight for $15 are even more important for ensuring good jobs that support families and communities.
But now, in Maryland, the Fight for $15 finds itself under attack from a surprising source: Maryland Del. Dereck E. Davis (D-Prince George’s). Davis introduced harmful legislation that would block cities and counties in the state from raising the minimum wage higher than the state’s paltry level of $8.75 per hour or adopting other basic worker safeguards, including paid sick leave.
Legislative leaders in Annapolis must reject this wrongheaded proposal — and instead strengthen protections for vulnerable workers across the state.
Cities and counties have been leading the push for stronger worker protections in the United States in recent years. The Fight for $15 started in New York and spread to San Francisco, Seattle, Los Angeles, Chicago and the District. Cities and counties have led the way in ensuring that workers are entitled to paid sick leave, a basic protection that most states, including Maryland, still do not guarantee.
Maryland’s cities and counties have long been leaders in this movement. In the 1960s, Baltimore was among the earliest cities to enact a local minimum wage. Montgomery and Prince George’s counties have had higher local minimum wages since 2014. Last year, Montgomery County became the first community in the state to guarantee earned sick leave.
In introducing his legislation, Davis argued that the state needs a uniform business environment. But the experiences of the more than 40 localities that have adopted local minimum-wage laws indicate that these measures help workers and are manageable for employers.
One key role they play is to allow higher-cost regions to adopt minimum wages that better match their costs of living. Maryland’s D.C. suburbs are among the nation’s most expensive places to live, with living costs comparable to New York, San Francisco and Seattle. According to the Economic Policy Institute, in 2014, a single worker without family responsibilities living in the D.C. suburbs needs to earn at least $20 per hour on a full-time basis just to make ends meet. Parents need significantly more.
Montgomery and Prince George’s counties raised their minimum wages to $10.75, going to $11.50 this year. The Montgomery County Council recently passed a bill increasing the minimum to $15. (The county executive vetoed it.) Davis’s legislation would block these local efforts and harm workers and their families.
Local wage laws allow a safety valve for addressing worker pay when the state is unable to act. For example, with Gov. Larry Hogan (R) likely to veto any action by the legislature to raise the minimum wage significantly, local laws may be the only way many Maryland workers will get a raise in the near future.
Davis’s proposed ban on local wage laws would have an especially severe impact on workers of color. As a recent report by the National Employment Law Project highlighted, more than half of African American workers and almost 60 percent of Latino workers struggle to make ends meet on less than $15 per hour. Thousands of home health aides, security guards and fast-food workers across the state would be locked in poverty wages if Davis’s legislation passes.
This bill is coming from a Democrat who has often supported workers. Typically, red-state Republicans team up with corporate interests such as the Koch brothers-backed American Legislative Exchange Council to block cities from raising their local wages. And it has been communities of color and civil rights organizations such as the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, the NAACP and faith groups that, with worker-rights groups, have championed local action to protect workers rights and ensure that they are not left behind.
Working families in Prince George’s County and throughout Maryland need Davis to lead in the fight to raise wages and protect workers — not to try to lock workers in poverty.
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