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The Dripby Fern Shen6:13 pmFeb 21, 20130

Advocates: retail giants can handle hike increasing $7.25/hour minimum wage

Above: Walmart employee Mike Mensah, part of a demonstration by supporters of a bill to increase Maryland’s minimum wage.

Walmart workers and their supporters gathered outside the Catonsville Walmart today to say that raising Maryland’s $7.25-per-hour minimum wage would help families struggling to pay their bills without hurting the large, profitable companies that employ the majority of Maryland’s low-wage workers.

“Mom and pop businesses are always held up as the victims of minimum-wage laws, but actually our study found that 71% of the companies that employ low-wage workers in Maryland are big, employing 50 people or more,” said Jack Temple, a researcher who worked on the study released today by the National Employment Law Project.

The report, released today, also concludes that these companies are doing well. The authors reviewed the nation’s 50 largest low-wage employers and found that 63% of them are earning higher profits than before the recession.

Walmart, for instance, had post-recession profit growth of 23 percent and in 2011 paid its CEO $18,131,738, according to the report.

“The evidence is clear these businesses could afford the impact” of an increased Maryland minimum wage, Temple said.

“No one is saying that Wal-Mart should not be making money,” Rev. David Carl Olson of the First Unitarian Church of Baltimore said, addressing the crowd. “But the most powerful corporations in the world are making their extraordinary profits on the backs of working people and it isn’t fair.”

A 31-year-old Walmart employee from Laurel, Michael Mensah, told the crowd he makes $10 an hour,  can’t afford a car and lives at home with his mother.

Lagging Behind Other States

The demonstrators – about 25 of them assembled out near Baltimore National Pike after Baltimore County police blocked the entrance – were organized by Raise Maryland, a coalition of community, labor, immigrant, civil rights and faith groups working for passage of a statewide minimum wage increase.

The coalition is seeking support for bills introduced last month by Sen. Robert J. Garagiola (D-Montgomery) and Del. Aisha Braveboy (D-Prince George’s) to raise the state minimum wage to $10 by 2015 and then index it to rise with the cost of living. The legislation also incorporates a 20% increase for tipped workers (from 50% to 70% of the current minimum wage).

Lobbyists for retailers are lining up to oppose the legislation. And the Maryland Chamber of Commerce has warned members about the pending bills and said they would saddle employers with “additional costs” that “would have a negative impact on the state’s business climate and economic competitiveness.”

Walmart: Workers Are Proud of Their Jobs

Walmart spokesman Dan Fogleman declined to comment on the minimum wage legislation but said people have “misconceptions” about jobs at the company’s stores.

“Our associates are hard working women and men who chose to work for us. They are proud of their jobs,” Fogleman said. He said the average employee is full-time and makes $12.57-per-hour.

Advocates note that Arizona, Florida, Alaska, Maine, Nevada, Colorado and New Mexico all require employers to pay a minimum wage above $7.25 per hour, the current federal standard.

They also cite a report by the Economic Policy Institute (EPI) describing who would benefit from the minimum wage measure – about 536,000 Maryland workers, 87% of whom are over the age of 20 and 44% of whom are white.

If enacted, the measure would put an additional $778 million into these Maryland workers’ paychecks during the two-year phase-in period, the EPI report says.

Obama: Raise National Minimum Wage

Efforts to help low-wage workers are heating up locally and nationally in recent months. The hospitality workers’ union Unite Here helped workers at the Hyatt Baltimore to win an unfair labor practices complaint against the hotel chain last month.

The union is also working to help concession workers at Baltimore-Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport. They recently staged a rally at the airport, with workers speaking out about alleged lack of respect, poverty wages and inadequate access to affordable health care.

President Obama, in his State of the Union address, also took up the cause. He called for a rise in the minimum wage from $7.25 an hour to $9, with subsequent increases in line with inflation.

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