Mary Pat Clarke, councilwoman for district 14, introduced legislation to raise Baltimore’s minimum wage to $15 an hour. (Courtesy photo)

The fight to raise Baltimore’s minimum hourly wage to $15 is on.

Baltimore City Councilwoman Mary Pat Clarke and Ben Jealous, former National NAACP executive director, led a coalition of trade union workers, faith leaders, business owners and low wage workers to announce Baltimore’s Push for increasing the minimum wage to $15 an hour by 2020 at a City Hall press conference on April 18.

“Raising the minimum wage is what has to happen to ensure economic equity. This effort will require sacrifices and a unified effort to pull it together. The economic justice we seek matters in raising up families and neighborhoods to their equal status,” Clarke told a crowd of more than 100 people in the City Hall Rotunda.

Maryland’s current minimum wage is $8.25 an hour, a dollar more than the federal rate.  The current rate is already on track to increase to $10.10 per hour by July 2018, based on legislation passed by the Maryland General Assembly during the 2014 session.  Clarke’s proposal includes an incremental phase-in for the increase to $15 starting with a jump to $8.75 by July of this year and increasing in increments under $2 until the year 2020.  Thereafter, minimum wage increases will be tied to the Cost of Living Index.

Jealous said this was the next logical step for Baltimore’s continued healing. “We cannot rebuild our city on a starved economy. There’s not enough money circulating in West Baltimore where my family comes from. It’s not just our families that have struggled because of this very low minimum wage in Baltimore, it’s our neighborhoods as well.”  He added, “The reality is that the minimum wage would already be $15 right now if it were tied to inflation. So all this bill does is get wages up to where they should be right now.”

Clarke’s proposal will also raise the pay rate earned by tipped workers to$15 per hour by July 2025 and thereafter eliminate tipping.  Currently, tipped workers earn a minimum of $3.63 per hour and are exempt from minimum wage laws.

Bishop Doug Miles, from Baltimore’s Build Coalition, said that the Inner Harbor jobs and prosperity promised to the city years ago had not materialized. “Two generations ago, many of us in the faith community drank the Inner Harbor Kool Aid. We were told that if the Inner Harbor were developed it would create living wage jobs full time and year-round,” Miles said. “A generation later we discovered that many of those who were working in the Inner Harbor were working part time seasonal jobs at minimum wage and showing up at our soup kitchens and food pantries just to make ends meet.”

Critics of minimum wage laws charge that a mandatory increase in the minimum wage hurts workers with the greatest need for economic stability.  Employers in small and medium-sized businesses who are  best positioned to hire and train community-based unskilled workers would be forced to downsize if Baltimore minimum pay rates jump to almost twice the current minimum wage.

Penny Trouter, Owner of Light Street Cycles, supports the $15 an hour movement, but brought a more moderate viewpoint to Monday’s gathering. “The move to increase the minimum wage to $15 per hour is the best thing for Baltimore in the long run. But I have to tell you it’s a hard time for small business in particular right now. It is a sacrifice,” said Trouter.

If the legislation is successful,  Baltimore would join a handful of U.S. states and cities that have passed $15 minimum wage legislation in recent years, including Seattle, Washington, the first U.S. city to pass a phased-in 15$ minimum wage in 2014. New York State, San Francisco and Los Angeles, California, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, Greensborough, NC, and Massachusetts have all passed $15 legislation since 2014.