Weeks after St. Louis County Executive Steve Stenger appeared to shut the door on a minimum wage increase, his chief rival on the county council is angling to bring the issue back into the forefront.
Councilwoman Hazel Erby said in a press release on Monday that she has requested legislation increasing the minimum wage in St. Louis County. The University City Democrat said that she wants to raise the minimum wage to $15 an hour over five years.
Erby said she would start by raising the minimum wage in unincorporated St. Louis County, adding she would like the wage hike to be countywide.
“The county should be on board to improve conditions in our community,” Erby said in a telephone interview. “A lot of the things that prompted Ferguson have everything in the world to do with the minimum wage, what people are making, and the struggles that our families are having to make ends meet.”
There has been an increased focus on passing minimum wage hikes on a local level in the past few months – especially after the Missouri General Assembly passed a bill, HB 722, barring cities from raising their minimum wage. Last week, the Kansas City City Council passed a bill that gradually raises the minimum wage to $13 an hour. And while St. Louis’ minimum wage legislation has stalled, it could be revived in the coming weeks.
“It means everything in terms of working two jobs and being able to feed your family,” Erby said. “It makes a huge difference in what our families are able to achieve.”
Still, Erby’s legislation may not have an “easy task” of passing. Unlike St. Louis Mayor Francis Slay and, to some extent, Kansas City Mayor Sly James, Stenger isn’t on board with a minimum wage hike. In a statement to St. Louis Public Radio, Stenger said: “Councilwoman Erby has not presented me with her proposed legislation. I will review it upon my receipt.”
While emphasizing that he’s for increases to the minimum wage, Stenger told St. Louis Public Radio last month that the county could conceivably raise the minimum wage only in unincorporated St. Louis County -- not in its 90 municipalities. He said that would be impractical. (It’s also an open question whether cities or counties can raise their minimum wages – with or without HB 722. James suggested last week that the bill that passed in Kansas City will probably not survive legal scrutiny.)
"It would be a really messy situation," Stenger said. "You would have pockets of different wages. And that’s not good public policy. And our areas of unincorporated St. Louis County are really distributed throughout the county. We have a very large pocket south and a very large pocket north, but we really have pockets west and all over the county really.
"Very practically speaking, we have a legal impediment that would not allow us to establish a countywide minimum wage," he added.
While Stenger doesn’t vote on county council-related matters, he can veto legislation. And since six of the seven members of the council besides Erby are effectively allied with Stenger, a minimum wage hike could be squashed before it ever makes it to the county executive’s desk.
Erby is well aware of the structural barriers she face. But she added it may be instructive to put her fellow Democrats on the spot on the issue.
“I do know the dynamics and I do know how it’s working here in the last year or so,” said Erby, adding that she hasn’t talked to Stenger or her fellow council members yet about her minimum wage bill. “I’m hoping though and optimistic that they will put those things on the back burner and do what’s right for working families.”
“That’s what Democrats are about,” she added. “But if they’re not, the communities that they represent and the people that they represent should hold them accountable. Because it’s not inclusive. If you don’t provide people a living wage where they can take care of their families and provide a good life for their children, how do you call yourself a Democrat? I don’t understand that.”