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Sen. Thomas “Mac” Middleton reiterated at the Charles County Chamber of Commerce’s annual legislative breakfast Monday that he would not allow a vote on legislation increasing the state’s minimum wage until those who care for developmentally disabled people receive a commensurate pay raise.

Middleton (D-Charles) made news last week when he said he would keep Gov. Martin O’Malley’s proposal to increase the minimum wage to $10.10 an hour from reaching the Senate floor until the administration addressed the pay of disability workers, who currently make about $9.82 an hour, or 35 percent more than the current $7.25 minimum wage.

Caregivers are paid by the community-based providers that they work for, but providers are reimbursed for those costs by the Developmental Disabilities Administration under the state’s Medicaid program.

As the chairman of the Senate Finance Committee — which the bill must pass before heading to the chamber floor — Middleton told about 100 local business leaders at the breakfast that developmental disability service providers already struggle to retain direct-support staff due to the relatively low wages, given the stresses and difficulty of the job.

Increasing the minimum wage without a proportionate pay raise for those caregivers to keep them at least 35 percent above the minimum wage would make them even more difficult to retain, Middleton said.

“I’m prepared to put the bill before the committee. However, I’m not willing to let the bill come out until this whole DDA issue is resolved,” he said. “The Senate is going to tie that issue to the minimum wage.”

Del. Sally Y. Jameson (D-Charles) called Middleton “a hero for trying to ensure that something is done to protect those workers.”

“We’re asking these workers to not only work tough jobs, long hours, but for a very small wage,” she said.

Del. Peter F. Murphy (D-Charles), who at last year’s breakfast was the lone member of the delegation to voice support for a minimum wage increase, noted that the high turnover rate among support staff ultimately ends up hurting the developmentally disabled people they care for.

“They attach to these workers, and they make progress with these workers, but when they get paid so poorly and they’ve got to go somewhere else, each time that happens, I would like to say they start over, but oftentimes they slip back,” Murphy said.

Middleton said after the breakfast that he is confident he and O’Malley (D) can reach an agreement. The governor “made a commitment at the beginning of session that he would work with me on it,” but a subsequent write-down of fiscal 2014 and 2015 revenue of $250 million has made a pay raise for disability workers more difficult, Middleton said.

“The governor has been most cordial working with us,” Middleton said. “We won’t kill the bill. If we can’t come to terms, then we’ve got an attorney general’s opinion that we can put that provision in the minimum wage [bill].”

“It’s just not acceptable for these salaries to go below a 35 percent threshold. … He made a commitment at the beginning of session that he would work with me on it,” Middleton said

The House of Delegates passed the governor’s bill with a provision that would phase in the wage increase over three years, but Middleton said he expects the Senate to change increase the phase-in period to four or five years.

He also anticipates a carve out that would tie student workers to the federal minimum wage. If given a choice between younger and experienced workers at the same wage, “what employers will typically do is they will hire more experienced employees, so thereby you shut the door to a lot of these college and high school students,” Middleton said.

The House removed provisions that would have tied the state’s minimum wage to inflation, and it likely will be left out of the Senate version, Middleton said. The Senate also is likely to leave the required wage for tipped employees at half of the minimum wage, he added. O’Malley’s proposal upped the wage for tipped workers to 70 percent of the minimum wage.

“I think at the end of the day, we’re going to have a good product,” Middleton said.

Middleton also said that legislation before his committee requiring employers to provide sick leave would not be advancing this year.

“I’ve met with the advocates, and I’ve told them that this is not the year for it,” he said. “I think when you look at the economic state we’re in, we’re in a slow recovery if we’re in fact in a recovery at all, and I asked them to chose which was their highest priority, and addressing minimum wage was their highest priority.”

Jameson called the ongoing controversy surrounding a proposed windmill farm on the Eastern Shore and its potential interference with radar systems at Patuxent River Naval Air Station “a huge problem.”

The House earlier this month passed, 112-22, legislation sponsored by the Southern Maryland delegation that would place a one-year moratorium on the project while a study on the turbines’ impact is completed.

But Middleton said after the forum that the bill “is going to have a tougher sell on the Senate side,” even though he plans to “fight like a junkyard dog for it.” The bill is before Middleton’s committee, and is scheduled for a hearing April 1.

“I’m sure you’re going to be hearing a lot more about this, but it would truly be devastating, we believe, to the missions at Pax,” Jameson said. “When it hits the gate of the base, that captain is going to say it won’t work, and they’re going to pick up their mission and they are going to go somewhere where the community does not affect what they’re trying to do.”

jnewman@somdnews.com