New wage, old uncertainties

Md. workers laud proposal to change minimum pay but say it's not enough to make a difference to poor

January 14, 2007|By Todd Richissin | Todd Richissin,sun reporter

Whether Ernest "Bear" Lindsay makes an additional buck or two an hour isn't going to make an enormous difference in his overall take-home pay.

But when figuring out how to pay for various ailments and the light bill, every little bit helps.

That's why Lindsay is pleased that the U.S. House of Representatives passed a bill that would increase the national minimum wage from $5.15 to $7.25 an hour over two years.

"It shouldn't be the end, though," said Lindsay after returning home in Baltimore's Pen Lucy neighborhood from a day cleaning and clearing as a laborer, still wearing sweat pants, a sweat shirt and some worn-down shoes. "You still want to aim for a wage that people can live with that provides them with some dignity," he added. "What I have isn't so bad. It's a roof over my head, and my utilities are on. But what about families?"

At 51, what Lindsay has is this: a small room in a converted funeral home, which now serves as a rooming house of 11 units.

He works 20 to 30 hours a week, this man, whose nickname, "Bear," matches his frame. He makes $6.15 an hour, the minimum wage in Maryland.

Twenty-seven other states have passed minimum wages laws that exceed the national rate, including California and Massachusetts at $8 an hour, according to the U.S. Department of Labor.

In Maryland, 64,000 workers make less than $7.25 an hour, and about 53,000 others would see their wages increase in a domino-like effect, according to the Labor Department.

The bill passed 315-116 on Wednesday and now goes before the Senate. Under the measure approved by the House, 60 days after the legislation is enacted, the wage would increase to $5.85; to $6.55 one year later; and to $7.25 one year after that,

The increase would be the first since 1997.

"The worst thing about the minimum wage is that you have to make decisions sometimes, and neither choice is any good," Lindsay said. "I'm glad they're raising the wage. I just wish they'd do some more."

According to the Economic Policy Institute, a left-leaning think tank based in Washington, the increased wages would go mostly to people like Lindsay: primary wage-earners whose families live below the poverty level. Most of them will remain poor even if the increase began today.

"Even the new minimum wage doesn't get to the point of fairness," said Todd Cherkis, an organizer with the United Workers Association in Baltimore, whose current battles include one on behalf of workers who clean Camden Yards. "It's sad that these companies -- and a lot of them are making huge profits -- don't think they need to treat their employees fairly." Many of the workers affected carry more than one job, like Kenneth Shaw, 24, who works as a security guard at night and as a coffee and doughnut salesman by day.

And he goes to college.

"It's busy, busy, busy, like my head is spinning sometimes," he said last week, taking a break from his job at Dunkin' Donuts and Baskin-Robbins on Maryland Avenue in Baltimore.

"It'll make a difference, but I'll still be busy, busy, busy."

His "main" job, as a security guard, he said, pays $8.50 an hour, so there will be no change there. But while attending Essex Community College for degrees in music and business, increases at jobs like the one he has at the doughnut shop will help. He makes $6.50 there.

That brings him to about $780 a week before taxes, he said, about $660 after. And nobody else is paying his tuition. Or his gas bill. Or his rent. Or for his food.

"I look at it like nobody's going to help me out that much, so I better work as much as I can," he said. "On the other hand, I'll be saying, `If I'm working so hard, why am I always needing money?"

todd.richissin@baltsun.com

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