Workers to earn a 'living wage' under state program

July 25, 1996|By Erin Texeira | Erin Texeira,SUN STAFF Sun staff writer William F. Zorzi Jr. contributed to this article.

Top state officials have quietly signed a work contract that is making Maryland history: They are providing a "living wage."

Under the contract, the state will pay about two dozen janitors at the World Trade Center in downtown Baltimore $6.60 an hour, more than $2 above the federal minimum wage of $4.25.

Today, the trade center janitors get their first improved paychecks, and Gov. Parris N. Glendening will hold an afternoon news conference announcing the increase.

The wage increase, approved by the state Board of Public Works last month, is part of a growing movement to ensure that full-time workers are paid above the poverty line in hopes they can avoid using public subsidies to survive.

A city law that took effect last July requires that city-contracted maintenance, janitorial and food service workers receive a living wage.

"The governor believes strongly in a living wage," said Ray Feldmann, a Glendening spokesman. "It simply gives people the opportunity to make more money for the work they perform. They can then contribute more to the economy and to society."

At this point, the state contract is just a pilot program, a test to see if offering low-wage employees a living wage will minimize worker turnover and decrease training and hiring costs, Feldmann said.

If it proves effective, proponents hope it will lead to a state law making living wages mandatory for all state contracts.

"This is the next breakthrough for us," said Jonathan Lange, organizer for Baltimoreans United in Leadership Development (BUILD), a consortium of churches and local labor unions behind the living-wage movement.

Like the city law, the state contract requires that service workers employed under government-funded contracts be paid at least $6.60 an hour this year, at least $7.10 in 1997 and $7.70 in 1998.

The janitors had previously earned $4.25 an hour.

The state will pay about $1.02 million over three years to hire Bethesda-based Red Coats Inc. cleaning service, Feldmann said.

The living-wage effort was launched after local soup kitchens realized that a significant portion of those in need of free food were low-wage workers who could not make ends meet.

Opponents insist the living-wage movement is misguided.

"If Parris Glendening is serious about providing Maryland workers with a living wage," said Ellen R. Sauerbrey, Republican national committeewoman-elect, "the best way for him to do it is to lower taxes, so the government isn't confiscating 30 to 40 percent of what they are earning.

"Instead of the minimum wage, we now have bureaucrats deciding what is the living wage," said Sauerbrey.

But for Mary Sterrett, a full-time maintenance worker in an Inner Harbor office building who earns minimum wage, a living wage sounds superb.

Yesterday, she passed out fliers downtown announcing the governor's visit and lauding the living-wage program.

Sterrett, a BUILD organizer, talked about her latest hardship: This week she must buy a new bus pass, which means she won't have the money to buy everything on her grocery list.

"I always feel like I can't make it, you know," she said. "I am constantly struggling, always sacrificing something."

Pub Date: 7/25/96

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