ANNAPOLIS – The Senate voted 30-16 Thursday to raise the minimum wage from $5.15 to $6.15 an hour, an increase supporters said is needed to catch up with inflation.
If the proposal wins final approval, it would raise the salary for a full-time worker earning minimum wage from the current $10,712 a year to $12,792.
“This is a modest increase, but it will make a difference in Maryland,” said Tom Hucker, executive director of Progressive Maryland.
But opponents say raising the minimum wage would harm business, and while the measure has the support of the Senate president and House speaker, it could face a veto by Gov. Robert Ehrlich.
“The governor is never enthusiastic about proposals that could potentially force employers to lay off employees,” said Ehrlich spokesman Henry Fawell.
Ehrlich last year vetoed a so-called “living wage” bill that would have required workers under state-government contract be paid at least $10.50 an hour. While this bill is less ambitious than the living wage bill, Fawell said the governor is “not inclined” to support it, either.
“We’ll reserve judgment until (the bill) reaches the governor’s desk,” he said.
The state’s current minimum wage matches the federal rate, which has not changed since 1997.
The bill passed Thursday would raise the minimum wage by $1 an hour, but would allow employers to deduct their hourly cost in health benefits to their employees, back to a minimum of $5.15 an hour.
Several types of workers would remain exempt from the minimum-wage requirement, including tip-earning workers, full-time students and disabled employees.
Hucker said that allowing employers a credit for health coverage “makes a lot of sense at $10.50 an hour, but it doesn’t make a lot of sense at $6.15 an hour.” Still, he said, he supports the measure and that “Ehrlich would be very foolish to veto this very modest minimum wage bill.”
But business groups say raising the minimum wage will force businesses to raise prices, cut back employees’ benefits, lay off workers, or any combination thereof.
“We think it sends terrible messages about Maryland’s business climate,” said Will Burns, a spokesman for the Maryland Chamber of Commerce. “It says wages should not be set by the free market but by the state government.”
The House Economic Matters Committee is scheduled to take up its own version of the bill next Thursday. A Houses sponsor, Delegate Herman Taylor, D-Montgomery, said it stands a “very good chance” of clearing the committee.
“It’s not going to slide right by” in a floor vote, Taylor said. “It could be close.”
In 2003, about 28,000 — or 2 percent — of the 1.3 million Maryland workers paid by the hour — earned at or below minimum wage, according to the U.S. Labor Department.
Fifteen states have set a minimum wage higher than the federal rate. If Maryland joins those states, it would be on the lower end of those states, with the same rate as Delaware and Florida.
Neighboring Virginia and West Virginia have a $5.15-an-hour rate, while Washington, D.C., requires $6.60 an hour. Washington state has the highest minimum wage, at $7.35 an hour.
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