A St. Louis Board of Aldermen committee held off on votes on legislation raising the city’s minimum wage to $15 an hour.
While that proposal could get a vote from the Board of Aldermen’s Ways and Means Committee next week, it may face a tough time receiving approval from that body.
At issue is Alderman Shane Cohn’s legislation that would raise the city’s minimum wage to $15 an hour. It's nabbed the support of St. Louis Mayor Francis Slay and some activist groups like Jobs with Justice. But it's also spurred opposition from business groups, such as the St. Louis Regional Chamber and the Missouri Restaurant Association. The measure faces a murky legal future, as some lawmakers like Sen. Kurt Schaefer, R-Columbia, contend that cities aren’t authorized to raise the minimum wage.
During a meeting of the Board’s Ways and Means Committee on Tuesday, Cohn said that he would make changes to his legislation. Among other things, the changes would lengthen the phase in for the $15 an hour minimum wage from 2020 to 2024. If the bill is signed into law, Cohn said the city’s minimum would go from the state’s minimum wage of $7.65 an hour to $8.25 an hour. The 25th Ward Democrat said it would then go up roughly 75 cents per year before it hits $15 an hour in 2024.
Cohn also said the substitute bill would expand exemptions for a number of entities, including nonprofits and home health care companies. It would also “tighten up” language around franchises and continue to exempt businesses that have 15 or fewer employees or $500,000 or less in gross volume sales.
“In this committee substitute, in 2019 St. Louis would have a minimum wage of $11.50. And so, we still would not be paying as much as Chicago in 2019 – which, by the way, is still four years out,” said Cohn, adding that Chicago would require a $13 an hour minimum wage in 2019. “While I hope that that appeases some folks, I think there are still some very serious issues as it pertains to people being able to live and afford food and afford a roof over their head.”
In addition to Cohn’s committee substitute being introduced for discussion, Alderman Joe Vaccaro, D-23rd Ward, introduced a competing proposal on Wednesday that would raise the city’s minimum wage to $10.10 per hour by 2020. He said that would be a figure that would be easier to get through the Board of Aldermen.
“I’ve talked to all the different members and you could hear from the conversations in here -- $15 will not get out of here,” Vaccaro said. “Believe it or not, I’m doing them a favor by trying to get this to a number that will pass versus a promise that’s not doable.”
The committee held off on voting on the substitute or any other amendments on Wednesday. Vacarro said the committee might take votes next week.
There were signs, however, that Cohn’s $15 an hour minimum wage bill may face a difficult time getting out of committee – especially based off the comments from aldermen who aren’t co-sponsoring his legislation.
Much of the skepticism is based on indications that St. Louis County won’t go along with the city’s minimum wage push. That provided some pause for aldermen, especially since some businesses have openly talked about moving to the county if Cohn’s bill passes.
Alderman Antonio French, D-21st Ward, said Cohn’s bill could exacerbate already high unemployment within his north St. Louis-based ward. He flatly said he didn’t think a $15 an hour minimum wage would make it out of the Ways and Means Committee -- but a bill with a lower threshold might.
“We are starved for jobs in the city of St. Louis,” French said. “The biggest problem I have in my community is folks that have no jobs. And so, I do not want to make our low-skilled or unskilled workers less appealing to employers – especially if they can only just cross the county line and have cheaper wages out there.”
Proponents of the bill pointed to studies showing that increasing the minimum wage didn’t result in major jobs losses between two jurisdictions. But Alderman Scott Ogilvie, D-24th Ward, said there are still a lot of unknowns about what would happen if St. Louis and St. Louis County had a big minimum wage gap.
“My concern is just going alone as sadly a relatively small jurisdiction within the state of Missouri, we’re really conducting an experiment,” Ogilvie said. “And if the state does nothing and we see these negative impacts, I mean I can’t imagine coming back here and saying ‘well, sorry we’re repealing this now – we’re going back to $7.85 or whatever the minimum wage is at that point.’”
“I would just rather see an approach that does something meaningful, but minimizes the risk to employees, to the unemployed, to the city’s finances, to commercial real estate values,” he added.
For his part, Cohn said on Wednesday that concerns about a mass exodus of businesses from the city to the county may be overblown.
“And I think it’s really hard to argue that when folks at the bottom of the economic ladder do better, the rest of us do better as well,” Cohn said. “And I understand that people have concerns around businesses potentially moving across that line into the county. But the fact remains that we have 320,000 consumers that live in this city. And we have a workforce population that’s the second largest in the region that comes into this city to do business, to work here and to spend their money here.”
Aldermen could have to act quickly, especially if a state bill known as HB 722 banning minimum wage increases before August 28 goes into effect. Some, like Schaefer, say cities like St. Louis and Kansas City are prohibited from raising their minimum wages regardless of whether HB 722 is signed or vetoed.