Missouri Lawmakers Want to Snatch Raises From Workers Who Need It Most

After waiting nearly two years, thousands of St. Louis’s lowest-paid workers are about to get long-overdue pay raises.  But not if the business lobbyists in Jefferson City have their way.  They are telling state lawmakers to drop everything in order to rush through “emergency” legislation to make sure the workers don’t get these raises, claiming that raising pay for workers at the bottom somehow poses a threat to Missouri’s public health and safety.

OK, right.

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Indeed, Republican lawmakers are racing in yet another effort to prevent a higher minimum wage in St. Louis from taking effect, and to ban, once again, cities and counties from adopting their own local increases.

If this feels like déjà vu all over again, well, it is.

Back in 2015, the elected Board of Aldermen in St. Louis approved, and Mayor Francis Slay signed, an ordinance to set St. Louis’s minimum wage at $8.25 per hour and then raise it gradually to $11 by January 2018.  Lickety-split, Republican state lawmakers passed a law to bar cities from enacting local minimum wages, and business groups pressed a lawsuit to try to halt the St. Louis raise.  Lawmakers overrode then-Governor Jay Nixon’s veto to enact the measure, and the lawsuit yielded an injunction halting the St. Louis wage increase before it took effect.

But last month, a unanimous Missouri Supreme Court ruled that state law did not prohibit St. Louis from moving ahead with its higher minimum wage.  As a result, when the injunction is lifted (which could happen in a matter of days), St. Louis’s minimum wage will increase to $10 per hour, giving 70,000 low-wage workers there a badly needed raise.

And so, on March 1st, one day after the high court’s decision, Republican lawmakers dusted off their minimum wage preemption bill and rewrote it to be a local minimum wage nullification bill (HB 1194)—one that would nullify, even retroactively, the St. Louis raises and impose state-mandated wage suppression targeting Missouri’s underpaid workers.

This shortsighted measure promises to hurt, not help, Missouri’s working families and local communities.  Local governments play the most direct role in addressing community conditions and needs in Missouri.  That’s why local communities should retain the power to innovate on issues like the minimum wage that so directly affect their citizens’ lives and livelihoods, and to respond with remedies as St. Louis has done.  This is all the more important on issues like the minimum wage, where gridlock often prevents Congress or state government from acting.

In recent years, more than 40 cities and counties around the nation have responded to local needs by adopting city or county minimum wage increases.  Much smaller cities than St. Louis—such as Flagstaff, Portland (Maine), Santa Fe, and Tacoma—already have set minimum wages of $10 or higher.  Research comparing job-growth patterns in neighboring cities or counties with differing minimum wages shows that higher minimum wages effectively boost incomes without slowing job growth or making businesses leave.

Their experiences also show that higher local minimum wages boost spending and business activity in local economies.  In Illinois, where the statewide minimum wage is just $8.25, Chicago has had a higher local minimum wage since 2014—currently $10.50 an hour.  During that period, Chicago has driven job growth in Illinois, generating 85 percent of all new employment statewide.  Moreover, that job growth has mainly consisted of service sector jobs, including restaurant and retail jobs, suggesting that higher paychecks in the city are contributing to strong consumer sales and growth.  Experiences also show that the inverse is true:  when minimum wages are kept low, local economies struggle—and businesses have a hard time keeping workers.

Opponents of higher minimum wages like to claim that by keeping wages low, they are helping younger workers get a foothold in the workforce.  But the average age of minimum wage workers is 35, and nearly 9 in 10 are at least 20 years old.  Half are older than 30; about a third are at least 40.  And more than one in four are parents raising children.

Missourians should reject state lawmakers’ attempt to handcuff cities by blocking St. Louis’s higher minimum wage and prohibiting other communities from raising pay for their lowest-paid workers.  And if Republican legislators approve this local minimum wage nullification bill, Gov. Eric Greitens should stand up for local communities and veto the state legislature’s overreach.

Mitchell Hirsch is a policy advocate and blogger with the National Employment Law Project.

This commentary was originally published by the St. Louis Post-Dispatch opinion page.


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