It’s been one year since Councilwoman Mary Pat Clarke, D-14, first introduced a bill that would have required major retailers to pay employees a living wage.
The galvanizing ordinance—filed May 3, 2010—thrilled many city residents, who saw the possibility to earn more money in a tough economy, and horrified business leaders, who said companies could not afford the higher wages and might consider leaving Baltimore.
At City Hall, Jeff Zellmer of the Maryland Retailers Association said the proposal would be “a holocaust for the retail industry.”
Polarization over the bill translated into the City Council, whose labor subcommittee tabled the legislation after a split vote.
The bill would have extended Baltimore’s existing living wage law – championed by Clarke when she was president of the City Council in 1994 – which requires city workers and contractors earn at least $10.59 an hour.
This week, Clarke proposed an amendment to that law that would put City Council support behind banquet workers in Baltimore’s only city-owned hotel, the Hilton, as they negotiate a change in their agreement that would allow them to receive a percentage of the hotel’s gratuities.
Under their current contract, the food service workers don’t receive a portion of the tips that the Hilton requires of customers during banquet events, and they work irregular hours with no opportunities for overtime.
According to the living wage law, workers under city contracts must receive overtime pay that is equivalent to the living wage fee plus one-and-a-half that amount per hour.
The employees don’t benefit from the stipulation since they aren’t given overtime, but Clarke says the Hilton could receive an exemption from the federal government that would allow its workers to trade overtime benefits for gratuity.
“They (the hotel employees) say that in their case, the gratuities bring them more income than the overtime, especially since they are not being given any overtime,” Clarke explained. “If they can negotiate a share of gratuities and if that pay that they then receive meets or exceeds what they would earn under living wage then the city code would comply with a federal waiver on overtime pay.”
She says amending the city living wage law to allow “certain workers” to receive federal exemption from overtime in exchange for receiving tips—called “commissions in the bill summary—would make it possible.
Hilton officials would still have to agree to apply for the federal exemption, and Clarke says the employees are working with their labor union to negotiate with the hotel leaders.
She contends that her “minor” amendment would ensure that workers are fulfilling the city code if the hotel receives an exemption.
Her goal was to “come up with a way for this to happen without in any way watering down the living wage requirement of the law,” she added.
So far, the ordinance has received support from Councilman Carl Stokes, D-12, who has also worked with the hotel employees and the labor union.
Although her proposal to mandate that retailers pay workers a living wage encountered a roadblock last year, Clarke refutes that the bill is “dead.”
“It’s not dead; it is in committee,” she said. “I still needed one vote and I’m still looking for it. That bill is alive and resting peacefully until the last Council meeting of this term of office in December. I’m one vote away and I’m hoping that during the election campaign, since the majority of people in the city favor the bill, some candidates might be inspired to reconsider their no-vote.”
The bill, which applies to companies that gross over $10 million a year, could be resurrected if at least eight of the 15 City Council members petition for a full body vote.
If enacted, the Board of Estimates, as it does for city contract workers, would determine the living wage rate each year based on the federal poverty level or the amount of money needed for a family of four to cover basic expenses. This year’s rate is $10.59 per hour compared to the minimum wage rate of $7.25 per hour.