If it were up to Cynthia Sanders, St. Louis would sue to stop a state bill from voiding the city’s minimum wage increase. Sanders, a janitor who saw her pay go from $8.50 an hour to $10 an hour earlier this year, said it’s not right for workers like her to get a raise “and then just take it back.”
It isn’t clear whether there will be a lawsuit, but if so, Mayor Lyda Krewson won’t be the one behind it. The Democrat told St. Louis Public Radio in a statement that while she strongly supports the city law bringing the minimum wage up to $11 an hour by 2018, the legislature has the right to overturn it.
Republican Gov. Eric Greitens announced last week he would let a bill by Rep. Jason Chipman, R-Steeleville, go into effect Aug. 28 without his signature. The measure bars any city or county from having a different minimum wage than the state, even those that are “currently in effect or later enacted relating to the establishment or enforcement of a minimum or living wage.”
Despite her disapproval of Greitens’ decision, Krewson said there’s not much the city can do about the law that initially took effect in 2015 but wasn’t reflected on paychecks until earlier this year.
“When the legislature first passed this bill to preempt [St. Louis’ minimum wage law], certainly there were several discussions with the city counselor’s office,” Krewson said. “And the thought was this was not a winnable case for the city.”
Republicans who support the minimum wage ban have said there’s little debate that the state has the ability to overturn city and county laws. That’s what happened in 2013, when lawmakers from both parties passed a bill that struck down St. Louis and St. Louis County’s ordinances that required banks to negotiate with homeowners going through foreclosure. Republican lawmakers also contend that different minimum wages across the state hurts the economy.
“We’ve had business owners calling certain legislators … talking about what effect that could have on not only summer jobs and their inability to hire summer workers, but the impact that it could have on many families when they have to let these people go,” Rep. Nick Schroer, R-O’Fallon, said last month.
Legal experts’ take
Someone like Sanders or the labor union that represents her could file a lawsuit aimed at striking down the state bill.
But Marcia McCormick, a Saint Louis University law professor, has doubts that legal action would save the city’s minimum wage ordinance, adding that “municipalities are pretty much at the mercy of the states because the state controls all of the structural power.”
She pointed out the bill doesn’t stop St. Louis from requiring city contractors to pay workers higher than the minimum wage, which she says could be an opportunity to help the city’s low-income workers.
“That wouldn’t reach everybody,” McCormick said. “But it might reach a large enough chunk of people to sort of build future political will to repeal the preemption.”
A city is going to lose when a local ordinance conflicts with state law in most instances, according to University of Missouri-Columbia law professor Richard Reuben. After all, he said, states “create counties, they can shut ’em down.”
But courts have typically given cities leeway to pass ordinances that focus on “primarily municipal functions,” he said, such as placing regulations on a park or putting stipulations on government contracts. He said there’s a “fair argument” to be made that a city setting its own minimum wage falls into that category.
“And these are the kind of arguments that would go to the judicial treatment of a minimum wage law as an essentially local matter. I don’t think it’s spurious. I think it’s a reasonable claim to make,” he said.
What happens next is more than just a philosophical exercise for Sanders, the janitor. She said she used her boost in pay to buy more food for her grandchildren, and added it’s a “slap in the face” that her wages are going down.
Follow Jason on Twitter: @jrosenbaum
On the Trail, a weekly column, weaves together some of the intriguing threads from the world of Missouri politics.
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