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St. Louis aldermen reconvening to debate minimum wage hike

Supporters of raising St. Louis' minimum wage listen to testimony Tuesday at St. Louis City Hall.
Jason Rosenbaum | St. Louis Public Radio
Supporters of raising St. Louis' minimum wage listen to testimony earlier this year at St. Louis City Hall.

With the clock ticking, the St. Louis Board of Aldermen was scheduled to tackle legislation on Tuesday morning that would raise the city’s minimum wage. 

This bill stokes passion on both sides of the issue, and is likely being monitored around the region and across the state.

Earlier this year, St. Louis Mayor Francis Slay and supportive aldermen threw their support behind Alderman Shane Cohn’s effort to raise the city’s minimum wage to $15-an-hour by 2020. But the legislation ran into procedural snags, culminating in the bill being tabled before aldermen started their summer break.

But St. Louis Board of Aldermen President Lewis Reed joined with Alderman Freeman Bosley Sr., D-3rd Ward, and called the board back into session on Tuesday at 10 a.m. The aldermen were expected to take up a revamped bill that would gradually raise the city’s minimum wage to $13 an hour by 2020:

  • The bill would raise the city’s minimum wage to $8.25 an hour on Oct. 15, 2015.
  • On Jan. 1, 2016, the city’s minimum wage would go up to $9.
  • It would then increase by a dollar every year until it gets to $13 an hour by 2020.

Alderwoman Megan Green, D-15th Ward, said supporters of the minimum wage increase have been working behind the scenes to craft legislation that can make it to Slay’s desk. Reed had spoken out against several exemptions that were attached the bill, and Green said many of them have been removed.

After his unsuccessful mayoral bid in 2013, aldermanic president Lewis Reed rebounded in 2014 when he backed several winning candidates for city offices. He's expected to win a third term as aldermanic president.
Credit Jason Rosenbaum | St. Louis Public Radio
St. Louis Board of Aldermen President Lewis Reed helped call the Board of Aldermen back into session to debate the minimum wage hike.

“We still define an employer as somebody with 15 or more employees or individuals who work there — and a business that has $500,000 or more in [gross volume sales],” Green said. “So there’s still that exemption in there. But a lot of those industry-specific exemptions, a lot of those things that would just allow it so that just one or two businesses were exempt, have been taken out of there.”

Aldermen may have to act relatively quickly because of state legislation known as HB 722. That legislation bans local minimum wage increases, but includes a provision that states the bill does “not pre-empt any state law or local minimum wage ordinance requirements in effect on Aug. 28, 2015.” Supporters of the St. Louis minimum wage increase believe that if they can pass their bill by Friday, it wouldn’t be voided if a veto of HB 722 is overridden.

(Some lawmakers, however, — including Sen. Kurt Schaefer, R-Columbia, and House Speaker Todd Richardson, R-Poplar Bluff — believe that St. Louis’ minimum wage would be unconstitutional regardless of whether it’s passed by Friday.)

Green said the bill would go into effect immediately to conform to HB 722. She’s “absolutely comfortable that we have the votes to pass this," she said.

“ Just as we had some members of the Board who were uncomfortable taking out exemptions, we had some folks who were not OK with the previous version because there were so many specific carve-outs and exemptions in it,” Green said. “That in and of itself was a balancing act. You gain some votes and you lose some votes.”

Stoking passions

The city’s minimum wage push has the support of some labor unions and activists groups. Rasheen Aldridge, a member of the Ferguson Commission who’s been active in the movement raise the minimum wage, said he was enthused that aldermen were coming back into session to deal with the issue. 

Alderman Joe Vaccaro, D-23rd Ward, plunged the future of a minimum wage bill into doubt after cancelling committee hearings on the issue.
Credit Jason Rosenbaum | St. Louis Public Radio
Alderman Joe Vaccaro, D-23rd Ward, plunged the future of a minimum wage bill into doubt after canceling committee hearings on the issue.

“Raising the minimum wage is an issue of basically giving families the ability to live without having to live check to check,” Aldridge said. “And right now people have to live check to check, because the minimum wage is so low. And raising it would finally be able to have families that can breathe a little bit.

“I’m excited, but at the same time, I’m a little hesitant,” he added. “I know there are many individuals who feel like raising the minimum wage is not important – it’s just a starting stone.”

Aldridge’s slight trepidation could be a reference to the likely strong opposition to the wage hike from some aldermen.

Alderman Joe Vaccaro, for instance, said he’s ready to offer roughly 15 alternate versions of Cohn’s bill — and expects some of his colleagues to suggest more changes. The 23rD Ward Democrat scrapped hearings on Cohn’s bill earlier this summer, a move that threw the measure’s future into doubt.

Vacarro questions whether a $13 an hour minimum wage increase has the votes to pass — and expects the measure to face strong opposition.

“Do this and jobs will be leaving the city — not coming to the city,” Vaccarro said. “It will be discouraging people. And I’m not trying to look like a bad guy. And I know I come off looking like a bad guy. But this, in my opinion, it’s a job killer. And taking all the exemptions out made it worse.”

The legislation also fostered opposition from some business owners and business groups. Hart Nelson of the St. Louis Regional Chamber said passage of the bill would create uncertainty for businesses.

“This will absolutely face litigation because it is unlawful,” Nelson said. “And so all of that is going to create increased uncertainty for employers who are trying to plan how they can grow, how they can expand. For employers who are considering moving to the city, this is something that is going to be very uncertain for a period of years. And that’s going to cause problems for the economy.

Nelson said it could place city businesses at a competitive disadvantage since St. Louis County isn’t following suit with a wage increase.

“The city is not just an isolated region. It’s not an entire labor market onto itself,” Nelson said. “We are part of a larger region. And we need to look at the economic effects that this is going to have.”

Green says the bill's supporters are hoping to initially passed the bill on Tuesday and then come back on Friday to give final approval to the measure. 

And while supporters and opponents of raising St. Louis’ minimum wage don’t agree on much, both believe that Tuesday’s Board of Aldermen meeting on the topic won’t be resolved that quickly.

“They start at 10 in the morning and they may take a break to hopefully order some pizzas or something,” Vacarro said. “But I sort of think it’s going to go real long.”

“I would be very, very surprised if we were done by 11:30 a.m.,” added Green, with a laugh.

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