Updated after court hearing - St. Louis’ newly enacted minimum wage law is facing an expected legal challenge.
Several prominent business groups are party to a suit filed to strike down a law raising the city’s minimum wage to $11 an hour by 2018. Among other things, the lawsuit contends the law violates several state statues and was improperly drafted. (Click here to read the lawsuit.)
St. Louis Circuit Judge Steven Ohmer did not rule on whether to issue a temporary restraining order -- which would effectively stop the city's minimum wage from raising from $7.65 an hour to $8.25 an hour on Oct. 15. He may rule on that issue Wednesday afternoon.
Spencer Fane attorney Jane Dueker, who played a key role in a successful lawsuit challenging local foreclosure mediation ordinances, is handling the suit. In addition to contending that city didn't have the authority to raise the minimum wage, she cited a number of court cases restricting local ability to go beyond state law – such as Missouri Bankers Association v. St. Louis County.
"The only thing worse than not raising the minimum wage is telling people you can do it when you don't have the authority," Dueker said after attorneys from both sides argued for a TRO. "This suit is about whether the city has the constitutional authority to enact a local minimum wage. And if the city were right, we have over 500 local municipal entities in the state of Missouri. And arguably, under their argument, each one of them could have a different minimum wage."
One of the plaintiffs is Mitchell Waks, who owns Cooperative Home Care. He told a Board of Aldermanic committee earlier this year that a minimum wage hike that was too high would drive him out of business. (At the time of his testimony, the board was considering a hike up to $15 an hour. But Waks said in the lawsuit that the new ordinance would force his business to "cease its operations within the city overnight.")
“If the economics force us out of business, what is the alternative?” Waks said in June. “Well, you can start caring for your mom. And I applaud that. Or you can send them to an institution. Or what about the 25 year old with a disability? Where do they go? Well, you’re going to send them to a nursing home. And that’s a long life span at 25 to send them there.”
Other plaintiffs include the Missouri Restaurant Association, Missouri Chamber of Commerce and the Associated Industries of Missouri.
Maggie Crane, a spokeswoman for St. Louis Mayor Francis Slay, said that the Democratic chief executive expected the new minimum wage law would face a legal challenge. “They'll fight it,” Crane said in an e-mail. “We'll defend it.”
In the city's response to the TRO, St. Louis Counselor Winston Calvert argued that the city's charter powers allow for a minimum wage hike. He also stressed an urgency to help low-income workers, pointing to how the Ferguson Commission listed increasing the minimum wage as a signature priority.
“An increase in the minimum wage is also an important tool for promoting racial equality; as the Ferguson Commission explained in its report, St. Louis does not have a proud history on [the topic of race], and we are still suffering the consequences of decisions made by our predecessors,” the city’s brief states. “St. Louisans have waited long enough for the decisive actions necessary to move our region beyond our region’s past sins toward a future of equality and dignity for all.”
Since a temporary restraining order would delay a roughly 60-cent increase in the minimum wage scheduled to take effect on Oct. 15, Calvert contended that a TRO decision was effectively a choice between businesses pocketing more money and single mothers being able to buy their children toothpaste. He reiterated that message when talking to reporters after the hearing.
"Anybody who's lived in St. Louis over the last year know we've faced our share of challenges," Calvert said. "And the challenges we face were articulated best by the Ferguson Commission yesterday. And one I thing I noticed today is that I think the plaintiffs are pretty tone deaf. And they're not reacting to the circumstances on the ground."
One of the lingering questions is the impact of a bill known as HB 722. That vetoed legislation banned local minimum wage increases, and it’s entirely possible that the Missouri General Assembly could override that veto later this week.
Some, including Slay, have pointed to a clause stating that the law “shall not pre-empt any state law or local minimum wage ordinance 20 requirements in effect on August 28, 2015.” The city’s minimum wage law went into effect on that day. Others, though, have said that verbiage is not necessarily a “safe harbor” for the bill, especially since other state statues could strike down St. Louis’ law.
What may ultimately decide whether the city's minimum wage lives or dies is whether a 1998 law banning local minimum wage increases is still active. Calvert contends it was declared unconstitutional. But Dueker says the case Calvert cites was dismissed before the Missouri Supreme Court ruled, and therefore kept the law in tact.