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Minimum Wage Increase Hits Senate Roadblock

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ANNAPOLIS, Md. (AP) — The pay rate for social workers who help the developmentally disabled has become a roadblock for the minimum wage bill and legislators hope to reach a resolution in a meeting with the governor’s staff Thursday.

Those service jobs are so demanding that paying near-minimum wage would be unjust, said Sen. Thomas Middleton, D-Charles, who chairs the Finance Committee. He said the wages for those state workers should be kept at a rate above the legal minimum, and that not giving them a little more money would lead to more turnover and affect quality of service.

“You’ve got to remember, these aren’t people that are working in restaurants,” he said. “It’s 24-7 with a lot of these folks.”

Those workers need state training and may even need nursing certification or other designations. Middleton said he expected to reach a compromise Thursday but won’t move the minimum wage bill before it’s fixed.

Middleton said Gov. Martin O’Malley’s office is concerned with the cost. By 2017, this could top $80 million yearly for the pay raise Middleton has in mind. This assumes a staff of roughly 11,300 full-time workers and 5,500 part-time workers, as estimated by the Maryland Association of Community Services. Under O’Malley’s plan to raise the minimum wage to $10.10 an hour, Middleton’s proposal means paying $3.54 more per hour above minimum wage.

Middleton said Del. Guy Guzzone, D-Howard, will also attend the meeting with two members of O’Malley’s staff.

The state and federal governments fund workers to help the disabled with grocery shopping, housekeeping, bathing and other basic tasks. Independent agencies hire the workers, and the state reimburses $9.82 an hour for each person, said Laura Howell, executive director of the Maryland Association of Community Services.

The agencies pool this money and pay workers $8 to $12 an hour, depending on seniority, Howell said.

Early in this year’s minimum wage debate, Howell’s department asked lawmakers to raise the reimbursement rate to 150 percent of minimum wage. In light of the state’s financial situation, they later agreed 135 percent would suffice, as it would keep the current ratio intact.

“At a minimum, we want to make sure that we don’t lose ground,” Howell said.

The minimum wage bill passed by the House had no such provision. But the Senate version is still lingering in the Finance Committee until it’s resolved.

Howell said agencies like to retain workers as long as possible. They help patients with intimate physical tasks, and they become friends to those who are lonely or grieving.

But the turnover rate is also higher than managers would like. It can require overtime hours, weekend and holiday work and complex medical decisions with life-or-death consequences. Staffers sometimes leave for lower-paying jobs just to avoid the stress.

“If these become minimum wage jobs, we won’t be able to compete,” Howell said.

She said this affects about 11,300 full-time employees and 5,500 part-timers.

As it is, Maryland saves money by helping these patients at home instead of keeping them in institutions, Middleton said. And the support staff make considerably less than state employees who do the same jobs.

The Finance Committee plans to discuss the minimum wage bill again next week.

(Copyright 2013 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)

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