St. Louis Aldermen completed a harrowing process to raise the city’s minimum wage – a decision that supporters say will help the city's low-income workers.
But few believe that Friday’s affirmative vote marks the last word in the minimum wage saga, especially if businesses or business groups pursue legal action to invalidate the newly enacted ordinance.
Aldermen backed legislation by a 16-8 margin that would gradually raise the city’s minimum wage to $11 an hour by 2018. The city’s wage will go up from $7.65 an hour to $8.25 an hour on Oct. 15 – and then go up to $9 an hour on Jan. 1. It will then rise to $10 an hour in 2017 and $11 an hour in 2018.
If an employer is found to be in “repeated violation” of the ordinance’s guidelines, the city’s license collector can revoke an establishment’s business license. The Board of Public Service can also take away other licenses, such as an occupancy permit.
St. Louis Mayor Francis Slay signed the bill sponsored by Shane Cohn of the 25th Ward into law soon after the Board of Aldermen passed it. With the Democratic mayor’s signature, St. Louis becomes the second city in Missouri – behind Kansas City – to raise its minimum wage this year.
"This new law gives the workers of St. Louis a long, overdue raise and brings the American Dream closer and within reach for thousands of families in our area," Slay said at a press conference signing the bill.
Getting Cohn’s bill to Slay’s desk wasn’t easy. Legislation that raised the minimum wage to $15 an hour got bottled up in an aldermanic committee, and aldermen couldn’t approve a pared down version in time for their summer break. Some contended that they needed to get the work done by Friday, mainly because of a vetoed bill known as HB722 that appears to pre-empt local minimum wage increases that go into effect after Aug. 28.
(It’s highly possible that the Missouri General Assembly will override that veto. But some, including House Speaker Todd Richardson, R-Poplar Bluff, and Sen. Kurt Schaefer, R-Columbia, don’t believe that the date enclosed in the bill amounts to grace period for cities to pass minimum wage increases.)
Throughout the roughly two-month process, Cohn’s bill faced several tough blows. St. Louis County Executive Steve Stenger said the county wouldn’t follow the city’s lead in raising the minimum wage. And St. Louis Board of Aldermen President Lewis Reed held off calling a continuing session until certain exemptions were removed from the bill.
When Reed finally called aldermen back into session, Cohn’s bill managed to initially pass with the help of an unusual coalition that included Slay’s traditional allies and rivals:
Voting for the measure were Aldermen Sharon Tyus, Freeman Bosley Sr., Sam Moore, Tammika Hubbard, Christine Ingrassia, Beth Murphy, Megan Green, Terry Kennedy, Marlene Davis, Cara Spencer, Shane Cohn, Frank Williamson, Chris Carter, Lewis Reed, Jeffrey Boyd and Scott Ogilvie.
Opposed were Aldermen Jack Coatar, Kenneth Ortmann, Joe Vollmer, Tom Villa, Carol Howard, Donna Baringer, Antonio French and Joe Vaccaro.
Not voting were Dionne Flowers, Stephen Conway, Larry Arnowitz, Joe Roddy, Lyda Krewson. Conway, as the chief financial officer of Imo's Pizza, had recused himself from the start.
"I think this issue is dear to the hearts to most Democrats and most progressives across the United States," Reed said. "And when faced with it, it's a tough one not to embrace and work to get done. But at the same time, you have a responsibility your community at large. So I think that's what you saw. You saw people coming together to try to meet those goals and try to bring things together."
And for his part, Cohn, the bill's sponsor, said the legislation's passage is "the first step forward for our city to make progress on economic justice for workers in our hometown.
"And I firmly believe that my colleagues down in the board who voted for this are representing the values of the citizens of the city of St. Louis -- and the workers that make this city work," he added.
Aldermen likely did not change any minds with a debate that lasted half the afternoon.
"People vote. Not businesses," said Green, an ardent supporter of the #FightFor15 movement. "We have gotten to a point in this country where we have allowed businesses to be our voice. We can sit here and have the same discussion that people had 85 years ago when we're at an all-time high of inequality or we can learn from those lessons and do what is right today."
But Vollmer, the alderman of the 10th Ward and the owner of Milo's Bocce Garden on the Hill, said the wage increase would kill small businesses like his.
"While you're going after McDonald's and Burger King, you're destroying and and hurting the livelihood of many, many small people," Vollmer said. "And in three or four years when you drive around and see that they're not there any more, I hope you call up and apologize to them." Alderman Tom Villa, of the 11th Ward, called the measure a "swift kick in the groin" to small businesses.
Alderman Antonio French, D-21st Ward, was one of several aldermen who contended the bill would place the city at an economic disadvantage -- especially with the county not following suit with a wage increase. And French said it was "wishful thinking" that Stenger would change his mind, since he attributed the county's decision not to act to legal impediments.
French also disputed the idea that $10 an hour jobs were detrimental. He went so far to say that if somebody brought dozens of those types of jobs to his ward, he would "kiss them on the mouth."
"We still want to attract jobs and bring businesses to our wards and our communities and try to put the huge number of unemployed people to work," French said. "It would be easier to get into work at $8, $9, $10 an hour than to force somebody to hire someone without a high school diploma and a low-skilled worker for $11, [especially] when they can be hired for much less in St. Louis County."
Slay, though, said he didn't think there would be "any discernible effect on jobs in the city of St. Louis," pointing to studies that his office had examined.
Aldermen on Tuesday removed language that exempted from the minimum wage increases sheltered workshops employing the developmentally disabled. That change left many of those workshops concerned they would go out of business. The board on Friday defeated an effort by Ogilvie to keep the current exemption in place. Cohn promised to draft legislation to deal with the workshops' concerns.
Regardless of whether the veto of HB722 is overridden or not, both sides of the minimum wage debate expect the new law to face a legal challenge. In fact, that prospect of litigation was one of the reasons the St. Louis Regional Chamber opposed Cohn's bill.
And detractors of the city’s potential minimum wage hike have pointed to a 1998 law that bans local minimum wage increases – which the Associated Press reported earlier this year is ensnared in legal uncertainty.
Both Slay and Reed agreed that some groups or businesses will sue to knock the law down in court. But Slay said his administration is willing to go to the mat to defend the bill.
"We feel very confident and comfortable with the legal aspect of it," Slay said. "We certainly think there may be a legal challenge. But we will defend that ordinance vigorously in court. We haven't seen a complaint yet. We don't know what the grounds are going to be yet. But if that happens, we will be prepared to respond."
Regardless of what happens to the measure in the future, Bettie Douglas is enthused. The McDonald's employee said Friday's aldermanic action was "a long time coming. But we're not finished," Douglas said. "We need $15 an hour and a union. So we're not finished, but I'm very pleased with where we are now."
Follow Jason Rosenbaum on Twitter: @jrosenbaum