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The Baltimore Sun:Maryland’s minimum wage increase likely to go forward, despite opposition from...

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Maryland’s next increase to the minimum wage, scheduled for Jan. 1, is likely to move forward as planned, despite efforts to put the brakes on it due to the coronavirus-fueled economic downturn.

The state has the authority to put a one-year pause in the increases, as the minimum wage gradually rises to $15 per hour.

But two of the three people charged with making that decision said Tuesday that the next wage increase needs to go forward — from the current $11 per hour to $11.75 at large companies and $11.60 at small companies.

Pausing the wage increase would be “unjust to the lowest-wage workers in the economy and I think would also omit an opportunity to make a good move for the economy as a whole,” said state Treasurer Nancy K. Kopp.

Kopp, a Democrat, is a member of the state Board of Public Works, which can put a one-time-only pause on the schedule of minimum wage increases when employment prospects are bleak.

Another board member, Comptroller Peter Franchot, also plans to support keeping the wage increase.

“Comptroller Franchot is committed to maintaining the current implementation schedule in the increase in the minimum wage,” said Susan O’Brien, a spokeswoman for the Democratic comptroller.

The third board member is Gov. Larry Hogan, a Republican whose office did not respond to questions Tuesday about the minimum wage.

The governor has opposed the $15 wage in the past. Hogan vetoed the minimum wage increase in 2019, and was promptly overridden by lawmakers in the Democrat-led General Assembly. He had proposed instead an increase that would have bumped the minimum wage up to an eventual $12.10 per hour.

No formal proposal was made this spring to pause the wage increase, but the three board members have heard from advocates on both sides. Business groups argued companies can’t afford to pay higher wages, while labor and liberal groups said low-wage workers need a pay boost now more than ever.

“When the minimum wage debate was going on, Democratic leaders put this safety valve in the legislation for reasons exactly like what we are facing right now,” said Mike O’Halloran, state director for the National Federation of Independent Business.

Democratic leaders have acknowledged the economy is in rough shape, but urged the Board of Public Works to stay the course.

“While we included a statutory pause in the law, we do not believe now is the time to stop this increase — even though our state’s economy is struggling,” wrote House of Delegates Speaker Adrienne A. Jones and other top Democrats in a letter to Board of Public Works members.

The issue of continuing the minimum wage increases comes down to competing priorities.

On one hand, businesses have lost significant amounts of money and work due to closures and restrictions meant to slow the spread of COVID-19. Many business owners have struggled to access federal and state financial aid.

Sen. Cory McCray of Baltimore plants himself on the side of low-wage workers.

“We’ve championed and called them heroes because they are essential workers, while we’ve had the ability to stay at home,” said McCray, a Democrat who was a chief sponsor of the law increasing the minimum wage, which was passed in 2019.

He said lower-paid workers tend to put their paychecks back into the local economy, buying necessities and supporting local businesses.

A group called the Fight for $15 coalition, which pushed for the law in 2019, has reassembled to lobby to keep the schedule of wage increases intact. On Tuesday, it held an online rally to amplify its message. Coalition leaders led a call-and-response chant over a meeting that was broadcast on Zoom and Facebook, with one person calling out: “Fight for!” and the participants responding: “Fifteen!”

The Rev. Kobi Little, president of the NAACP’s Baltimore chapter, said during the rally that the coronavirus pandemic and renewed concerns about police violence in the U.S. underscore that “structural inequity is at the heart of all the problems that we face.”

Minimum wage workers would miss out on thousands of dollars of income if the next increase is delayed, the coalition argues.

Groups that represent businesses, on the other hand, hope the one-year delay gets serious consideration.

The Maryland Chamber of Commerce listed the minimum wage delay among several options the government could consider to help businesses make it through the pandemic-induced economic downturn.

“It’s one of a number of options meant to start and generate a conversation,” said Ashley Duckman, the chamber’s vice president of government affairs.

The National Federation of Independent Business, meanwhile, is pushing hard to pause the minimum wage increase.

NFIB’s O’Halloran questioned if the ability to put the wage increases on hold isn’t used now — during an unprecedented economic downturn — would it ever be used?

“We are not asking the Board of Public Works to do anything they’re not allowed to do,” O’Halloran said.

“We are not asking them to go backward. We are talking about a one-year deferral that will allow small businesses, our state’s job creators, to get money back into their businesses so they can hire folks back off of furlough, off of unemployment rolls.”

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