Md. House panel passes minimum wage bill — but it isn’t ‘clean’

This article was republished with permission from WTOP’s news partners at Maryland Matters. Sign up for Maryland Matters’ free email subscription today.

This content was republished with permission from WTOP’s news partners at Maryland Matters. Sign up for Maryland Matters’ free email subscription today.

The House Economic Matters Committee voted for a $15 minimum wage bill on Monday night – but without many provisions sought by advocates, including those that would have ended subminimum wages for youth, agriculture workers and tipped workers.

The bill, as passed 17-7 by the committee, would also slow the rate of the minimum wage increase, starting in January 2020 and not reaching $15 an hour until 2025.

A leading advocacy group expressed disappointment that lawmakers would “weaken the bill and leave so many workers behind.”

The bill as passed by the committee retains the exemptions currently in state law for workers who aren’t subject to the minimum wage. The committee’s bill would also alter the subminimum wage for workers under the age of 20, who can currently be paid 85 percent of the state’s minimum wage for their first six months of employment. The committee amendments would allow employers to pay teenagers 85 percent of the state rate until their 18th birthday, when workers must then be paid the full minimum wage unless otherwise exempted.

Another major provision of the bill that the committee struck down would have automatically increased the minimum wage beyond $15, tied to increases in the Consumer Price Index.

Committee Chair Dereck E. Davis (D-Prince George’s) said that provision might have made life easier for committee members because they wouldn’t have to consider minimum wage bills every term, but said it could also set up a system of runaway increases that would put Maryland out of step with other states’ wage rates. Davis said lawmakers are elected to make the tough decisions of setting the minimum wage rate periodically and they should continue to do that.

Other amendments to the bill also add legislative flexibility.

The committee amendments add a one-time “off ramp” that would allow the Board of Public Works to suspend the increase for one year based on economic conditions, further extending the phase-in schedule. That provision would effectively allow the General Assembly to further legislate a slowdown or repeal the wage increase in the event of an economic downturn.

Additional committee amendments include increases to the state’s reimbursement rates for community-based agencies that provide mental health and substance use disorder treatments and assistance to developmentally disabled residents, as well as other community providers.

The committee also removed provisions that would have amped up enforcement remedies available to workers who believe their employers violate the state’s wage or hour laws; committee members including Del. Lorig Charkoudian (D-Montgomery), bill sponsor Del. Diana M. Fennell (D-Prince George’s) and Del. Cheryl D. Glenn (D-Baltimore City) said they would work on a plan to increase worker protections in the future.

The committee will also ask for a study about actual wage rates in the agricultural sector. Advocates, including Charkoudian, had sought to remove the exemption of agricultural workers from the state’s minimum wage rate, which they said is rooted in racial injustice. However, Del. Johnny Mautz (R-Lower Shore) said many agricultural workers get paid on the basis of production, which can yield payments higher than the minimum wage.

Fennell, who seemed to lodge a voice vote in opposition to each batch of committee amendments, said she ultimately supported the amended bill to increase the minimum wage to $15.

“I did not agree upon the amendments, but I agree on our workers getting paid a $15 minimum wage. I will support the $15,” Fennell said.

Del. Eric Bromwell (D-Baltimore County) said he would have voted against a $15 minimum wage bill in the past, but appreciated the compromises fashioned by the committee’s work group to craft amendments and ultimately supported the committee bill. The measure passed with support from all of the Democrats in the committee and was opposed by all of the Republicans.

The bill could come to the floor of the House of Delegates as soon as Tuesday morning.

“We applaud the Maryland House Economic Matters Committee for voting in favor of a $15 minimum wage increase,” said Ricarra Jones of Maryland’s Fight for $15 Coalition. “However, the coalition is disappointed that they adopted amendments that significantly weaken the bill and leave so many workers behind.”

A Fight for 15 bill remains pending before the Senate Finance Committee. Chair Delores G. Kelley (D-Baltimore County) said she was not certain when the Senate committee would vote on the bill, but said she was following the House amendments closely. She planned to review the House amendments on Tuesday morning.

“We will make the case to the Senate to tie the minimum wage to the Consumer Price Index and include raises for tipped workers in the legislation to benefit more workers, boost Maryland’s economy and reduce gender and racial pay gaps,” Jones said.

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