St. Louis low-wage workers call for raise, while Legislature tries to block it

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RAISE THE WAGE: Low-wage workers organized by Show Me $15 protested outside a McDonalds on Natural Bridge Road recently for St. Louis’ $10 minimum wage to be enforced immediately. The business organizations that took the city’s law to raise the wage to the Missouri Supreme Court, and lost, have filed a motion for the case to be reheard. – Labor Tribune photo

As low-wage workers in St. Louis, organized by Show Me $15, protested outside a McDonalds on Natural Bridge Road for the city’s $10 minimum wage to be enforced immediately, the business organizations that took the city’s law to raise the minimum wage to the Missouri Supreme Court, and lost, filed a motion for the case to be reheard.

Meanwhile, the Missouri Legislature is scrambling to block the increase and keep low-wage workers in the city earning the state’s minimum wage of $7.70.

On March 15, the last day the business organizations, including the Missouri Chamber of Commerce and the Missouri Restaurant Association, could challenge the court ruling that upheld the city’s law, attorneys for the business groups filed a motion arguing that the state’s high court misinterpreted the law.

That law, HB 722, passed by the Missouri Legislature in 2015, blocked any local minimum wage rates that exceeded the state standards established after Aug. 28, 2015, the same day city lawmakers in St. Louis passed a gradual increase to $11 an hour by 2018.

THE COURT RULING

The Court ruled that St. Louis made it just under the wire, acting within its rights as a charter city to approve the change. But opponents take issue with an argument made in the Court’s opinion that the Legislature, by passing HB 722, recognized cities’ power to enact local minimum wage ordinances.

In its decision, the Court also struck down a 1998 law that prohibits political subdivisions, such as St. Louis, from establishing a minimum wage exceeding the state’s wage. The motion filed by attorneys for the business groups contends that if lawmakers were still operating under that law in 2015, then they couldn’t have recognized local efforts to raise the wage with HB 722.

AN EXPECTED DELAY

St. Louis Mayor Francis Slay told reporters he expected the move.

“It just delays things, so it gives the state Legislature longer time to do whatever it wants to do,” Slay said.

Slay recently testified before Missouri House and Senate committees against a bill that is being fast-tracked through the Legislature to prevent any Missouri city from raising its minimum wage beyond the statewide minimum of $7.70.

St. Louis’ law sets the minimum at $10 this year and would raise it again to $11 next year. For now, Slay said, the city is unable to enforce the increase because a lower court injunction remains in place.

‘THEY DON’T UNDERSTAND’

All of the legal and legislative wrangling is a slap in the face for workers like Nicole Rush, 27, who currently earns $8 an hour at the McDonald’s on North Broadway and often must choose between paying her rent or utility bills or buying groceries for herself and her 8-year-old daughter.

That’s something she doesn’t think legislators understand.

“They don't have to wake up and say my electric is going to get cut off because I had to pay my rent or I had to get food. I don’t get food stamps. I don't get benefits, so I have to pay for food out of cash. They don't understand that and I don’t think they ever will,” Rush said.

The National Employment Law Project released a policy brief last week that said St. Louis employees lost out on nearly $35 million in wages since the law was supposed to take effect because of “interference” by the Legislature.

The policy brief estimates that a total of 35,287 workers have been denied raises totaling $34,828,105 between October 2015 and March 2017, and that St. Louis’s lowest paid workers – those earning between the state minimum and $8.25 – would have received an average wage of $2,394.

“That’s a huge loss in pay for workers whose annual incomes average about $12,500 a year,” the policy brief states.

(Some information for this report from St. Louis Public Radio and the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.)

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