$15 an hour? Not yet

Our view: City Coun­cil should be cau­tious on min­i­mum wage

Baltimore Sun - - FROM PAGE ONE -

The union-fi­nanced na­tional “Fight for $15” is re­turn­ing to Bal­ti­more this fall with a re­newed push for a $15 hourly min­i­mum wage. With vic­to­ries in such cities as Seat­tle, San Fran­cisco, New York and Los An­ge­les, sup­port­ers think Charm City is a prime can­di­date — par­tic­u­larly given turnover in the City Coun­cil, where the mea­sure failed by one vote in Au­gust.

Bal­ti­more’s in­com­ing mayor, Cather­ine E. Pugh, has long sup­ported rais­ing the min­i­mum wage at the state level but has ex­pressed mis­giv­ings in re­quir­ing the ben­e­fit for the city alone when em­ploy­ers can so eas­ily set up shop in the sur­round­ing coun­ties. We share her con­cerns, par­tic­u­larly given that Bal­ti­more’s Oc­to­ber un­em­ploy­ment rate of 6.1 per­cent was sig­nif­i­cantly higher than those of its neigh­bors, Bal­ti­more (4.5 per­cent), Anne Arun­del (3.7), Howard (3.3), Har­ford (4.0) and Car­roll (3.4) coun­ties, ac­cord­ing to the Bureau of La­bor Sta­tis­tics.

Yet, un­less skep­tics such as Coun­cil Pres­i­dent Bernard C. “Jack” Young or Mayor-elect Pugh in­ter­vene, there’s a re­spectable chance that the in­com­ing coun­cil will adopt Coun­cil­woman Mary Pat Clarke’s pro­posal to raise Charm City’s min­i­mum wage to $15 by July 2022. Three of the bill’s op­po­nents have left the coun­cil and, as Ms. Clarke re­cently ob­served, their re­place­ments cam­paigned in fa­vor of the mea­sure.

The min­i­mum wage has been a fix­ture in the U.S. econ­omy dat­ing back to 1938. And we would ar­gue that gov­ern­ment, par­tic­u­larly at the fed­eral level, has too of­ten failed to en­sure that the wage keeps pace with in­fla­tion. Na­tion­ally, the high­est min­i­mum wage, rel­a­tive to in­fla­tion, was the $1.60 per hour of 1968, which trans­lates to about $11.11 in 2016 dol­lars whenad­justed by the Con­sumer Price In­dex. Mary­land’s statewide min­i­mum wage is cur­rently set at $8.75 and will grad­u­ally rise to $10.10 per hour in 2018. The fed­eral min­i­mum wage re­mains stuck at $7.25.

Op­po­nents of the min­i­mum wage of­ten make the case that wages should be left to mar­ket forces alone. We dis­agree with that view as well. Too many work­ing Amer­i­cans are forced to live in poverty un­der present con­di­tions (leav­ing tax­pay­ers to es­sen­tially sub­si­dize em­ployer prof­its through safety net pro­grams like food stamps). But cities also can’t deny ba­sic eco­nomics — raise em­ploy­ers’ fixed costs too high and you will sim­ply end up with less hir­ing. A re­cent sur­vey of Bal­ti­more em­ploy­ers found the ma­jor­ity an­tic­i­pat­ing lay­offs if the bill is en­acted.

What do New York, Los An­ge­les, San Fran­cisco and Seat­tle all have in com­mon? They all have a higher cost of liv­ing than Bal­ti­more. And they all have lower un­em­ploy­ment rates, too (un­less Bal­ti­more is lumped in with Tow­son and the sur­round­ing coun­ties). They were rea­son­able test cases for the propo­si­tion that a $15 min­i­mum wage could be en­acted with­out ill ef­fects; Bal­ti­more is not.

That doesn’t make us un­sym­pa­thetic to the goals es­poused by union lead­ers. But when one of the lead or­ga­niz­ers speaks on be­half of Bal­ti­more’s “air­port work­ers” at a lo­cal rally, we have to won­der whether this is a re­sponse to the city’s spe­cific eco­nomic con­di­tions or just an at­tempt to add one more city to the $15-an-hour list. Bal­ti­more has not owned an air­port since 1972. Per­haps we’ve been con­fused with Chicago or the Dis­trict of Co­lum­bia. Is it pos­si­ble that the cam­paign’s one-size-fits-all ap­proach on the min­i­mum wage doesn’t take lo­cal cir­cum­stances into ac­count?

That’s not to sug­gest that th­ese are easy times for those earn­ing the min­i­mum wage. Pres­i­dent-elect Don­ald Trump has been all over the map on the sub­ject, but, as a rule, Repub­li­cans tend to op­pose rais­ing it. Mean­while, the work­ing poor may soon be tak­ing a hit on health care costs with the re­peal of the Af­ford­able Care Act and a roll­back of Med­i­caid. Yet the rem­edy to such cut­backs can’t fall to Bal­ti­more alone.

Raise the min­i­mum wage in Bal­ti­more to $15? Yes, even­tu­ally, but not now. It would only send a sig­nal to the business com­mu­nity that they’re bet­ter off stay­ing in, or mov­ing to, the ’burbs. And given what the city has gone through over the last two years — from Fred­die Gray ri­ots to the po­ten­tial re­nais­sance of­fered by Kevin Plank’s Port Cov­ing­ton plans — is now the time for a rift be­tween the city gov­ern­ment and lo­cal em­ploy­ers, big and small? No­body ben­e­fits from a $15 wage if there are fewer jobs to be found.

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