Bridget Highkin works as hard now as she did two years ago. But then she brought home $800 a week from her waitressing job and today she's lucky to clear $300.
For now — until she completes a part-time nursing program and can find a job as a nurse — financial relief for her family hinges on a proposal to increase Maryland's hourly minimum wage from $7.25 to $9.75 over three years. A few more dollars an hour would allow her to stop receiving assistance for day care and food, Highkin says.
"I live just under paycheck to paycheck," said Highkin, 25, who works at a Cracker Barrel restaurant in Bel Air and is a single mother of two. "At the end of each week, I'm scraping together my last pennies in hopes that the next week I can do it again."
Proponents of the minimum wage increase see momentum growing in its favor. Though proposed legislation has gone nowhere in the General Assembly session that ends Monday, backers say they have built support for another try next year.
They also say low wages are dragging down not only individuals and their families but the broader economic recovery.
"Giving raises to the lowest wage earners … is a critical part of the economic recovery," said Jen Kern, minimum wage campaign coordinator for the National Employment Law Project in Washington. "It doesn't cost taxpayers anything. We're saying to the private sector: 'You've got to pull your weight here. You're 40 years behind.' "
The proposal's supporters say the value of the minimum wage has eroded — it would need to be $10.04 in today's dollars to be equivalent to the state's rate peak in 1968 — and has contributed to the widening gulf between the rich and poor.
"We're seeing the deterioration of the middle class," said state Sen. Robert J. Garagiola, lead sponsor of a Senate bill to increase the minimum wage. "Raising the [minimum] to what it was in real terms several decades ago can reduce that disparity and put money into people's pockets, and that money goes back into the economy."
The Maryland proposal would not only increase the minimum wage, now equal to about $15,000 a year, but would index it to inflation and increase the minimum wage for tipped employees, who now earn an hourly cash wage of $3.63 per hour, or 50 percent of the minimum.
Groups such as the Maryland Chamber of Commerce and the Restaurant Association of Maryland have lined up against the proposal, saying it would drive up employer costs, force businesses to lay off workers and result in higher prices for consumers. And many legislators say they are leery of raising costs for employers just emerging from a recession.
"You have to question, with so many businesses out of business and so many businesses struggling, whether this is the appropriate time" for an increase, said Sen. Thomas M. Middleton, chair of the Finance Committee, which heard the bill last month. "I don't think it is."
Middleton, who said he does not plan to move the bill, said he believes entry-level workers are struggling but fears increasing wages could cause unemployment to spike across the state.
Likewise, Jeff Owens, chief financial officer for Clyde's Restaurant Group and chair of the state restaurant association, argues that wages for tipped employees should not be part of the minimum wage debate. Under the proposal, tipped employees would earn a base wage that is 75 percent of the minimum wage, rather than the current 50 percent.
"To practically double the cash wage, you're turning the financial model for a restaurant upside down," Owens said. "To all of a sudden double wages would require drastic measures" that could range from menu price increases to limiting full service, he added.
The state chamber of commerce warns of additional consequences: businesses being forced to send more jobs overseas or having to cut the number of part-time workers and unskilled laborers. "Many employees may have their hours reduced," a chamber position paper says. "Others may lose their jobs, and still others will not be hired."
Advocates of a higher minimum wage say mounting evidence refutes such arguments — and they are pushing to get their message out. Progressive Maryland, a nonprofit group that lobbies for working families and has acted as the lead advocate for bills introduced in the Senate and House of Delegates, has mobilized support from dozens of small businesses and launched a petition drive in Middleton's Charles County district. The group is planning town hall meetings this spring and summer in Charles and Baltimore counties.
"This is a major reform, and it does take multiple years," said Rion Dennis, Progressive Maryland's executive director. "We want to make sure we have all the grassroots support so … next year will be the year that Maryland will see its minimum wage increase."