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Pi Pizzeria Owner Won't Wait On Congress To Raise His Minimum Wage

Jason Rosenbaum, St. Louis Public Radio

Chris Sommers is putting his money where his mouth is when it comes to the minimum wage. 

Sommers is the owner of six Pi Pizzerias restaurants and Gringo in the Central West End. Instead of waiting for Congress or the Missouri General Assembly to act, he’s heeding President Barack Obama’s call for business owners to voluntarily raise the minimum wage his employees.

Starting on April 1, everybody who works at one of Sommers’ restaurants will make at least $10.10 an hour. It’s a move Sommers said will help entry-level workers make a decent living.

“This puts in place the floor which will be the difference between a tank of gas or getting a car repaired -- and that ability to get to work or not be terminated for not showing to work,” Sommers said. “It’ll help in the moments where people have an unexpected expense and they can take care of it now. And it’ll have a few people get to the point where they’re not just scraping by.”

Sommers said all of his employees were already making more than minimum wage. He said the wait staff is actually making in excess of $10.10 an hour, including tips.

Sommers’ decision will help people like Kevin Montgomery. As a line cook at Pi, he was already making more than the state minimum wage of $7.50 an hour. But, he said, the additional boost will give him a chance to spend money, and it will send a broader message to entry-level employees.

“I’m already productive. I mean, I’m already making above minimum wage,” Montgomery said. “It will help me as far as knowing that I’m getting more for my services, basically. I’m working hard. They’re definitely kind of matching my effort as far as my wage too.”

Sommers said his decision is a direct pushback to groups such as the National Restaurant Association and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. Both of those organizations have advocated against raising the minimum wage to $10.10 an hour, contending that it would lead to job losses.

In a statement sent to St. Louis Public Radio, the National Restaurant Association's  executive vice president of policy and government affairs, Scott DeFife, said “dramatic increases” in the federal minimum wage “could significantly limit the entry-level opportunities businesses can provide, hurting those with limited skills or experience and looking to enter the workforce—the very workers who need these opportunities.

“Other necessary reforms—such as increased access to education and job training opportunities—are far more effective, targeted ways to help people in poverty and will have a more meaningful impact on an individual’s earning potential,” DeFife's statement said. “Our industry provides real pathways to the middle class and beyond, and dramatic increases in the minimum wage will only hinder our ability to provide stepping stones for those that need it most.”

But Sommers said he’s done his own analysis and came to the conclusion that paying his employees at least $10.10 an hour wouldn’t spark any layoffs. And, he said, he won’t have to raise his food prices either.

“I do hope that others will look at their own numbers and look at ways that they can afford this. Because it’s exactly what we did,” Sommers said. “And we didn’t know the outcome. I was hopeful that the numbers would come in and indicate that we could afford this. And we can. And I believe that others can as well.”

Dry well?

Voluntary efforts like Sommers’ may be the only way that the minimum wage gets to $10.10 an hour in Missouri. That’s because legislative pushes on a state and federal level aren’t expected to go anywhere. 

Credit Jason Rosenbaum, St. Louis Public Radio
Sommers talks with St. Louis Mayor Francis Slay. Slay -- who has around $457,000 in his campaign account -- says he would be willing to help a statewide ballot initiative to increase the minimum wage.

For example: Prospects to get a minimum wage increase through Congress are tenuous at best. Even if an increase got through the U.S. Senate, it’s considered dead on arrival in the GOP-controlled U.S. House. Minimum wage increases will have a hard time passing in the Republican-dominated Missouri legislature, as well.

One possible alternative is a statewide ballot initiative, as Missourians voted overwhelmingly in 2006 to raise the minimum wage. But the prognosis for that particular avenue isn’t much better.

The campaign committee set up to support minimum wage ballot initiatives has $100 of cash on hand. And labor unions that may have funded initiatives to boost the minimum wage are instead steering big donations to an initiative to set up early voting.

And as St. Louis Public Radio reported earlier this year, Democratic-leaning groups are directing resources and manpower to minimum wage initiatives to boost turnout in states competitive U.S. Senate or gubernatorial elections. As of now, Missouri has no competitive statewide or congressional elections this year.

Sommers said that efforts to tie minimum wage ballot initiatives to Democratic turnout efforts was “very short-sighted.” He went onto say that people in states with higher minimum wages “spend more money in the economies of those states.”

“And if Missouri wants to languish toward the bottom, then we can do that,” Sommers said. “But we’re trying to change that here. And we’re excited to know that we may be distributing a little bit more economic might across the economy.”

St. Louis Mayor Francis Slay was on hand for Sommers’ press conference. At the mayor's request,the city of St. Louis now pays its employees at least $10.10 an hour.

Slay said he'd be willing to use his political organization or his campaign bank account to help a minimum wage, statewide ballot initiative succeed.

“Good efforts are things I support,” said Slay, who added one way he could help is by assisting in fundraising efforts. “What that support looks like, it all depend on all the details. The point of what I’m saying is we’d certainly be willing to talk to organizers on how we could help the effort. Because it’s something I do support.” 

Editor's note: Chris Sommers is a member of the Friends of St. Louis Public Radio board.

Jason is the politics correspondent for St. Louis Public Radio.