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St. Louis' action on minimum wage isn't changing outlook in St. Louis County

St. Louis County Executive-elect Steve Stenger said his transition into his new office is going much more smoothly than last week.
File photo | Rebecca Smith | St. Louis Public Radio
St. Louis County Executive Steve Stenger says the city's decision to raise the minimum wage doesn't change the status quo in St. Louis County.

When St. Louis last week started the process to raise its minimum wage to $11 an hour by 2018, some policymakers and activists hoped the move would spur St. Louis County to follow suit.

“It would be great if the county came along with us,” said St. Louis Board of Aldermen President Lewis Reed. “I think that is one of the major issues with the bill. We need to have this on a much broader spectrum than just the city.”

But fans of minimum wage increases shouldn’t expect St. Louis County to come around anytime soon. For weeks,St. Louis County Executive Steve Stenger has said that the county’s charter doesn’t allow for a minimum wage increase within its 90 municipalities.And he said while it’s possible to impose a minimum wage hike in unincorporated St. Louis County, he’s said that type of action isn’t practical.

Asked on Tuesday if the city’s move to raise the minimum wage changed the status quo in St. Louis County, Stenger said: “No, it doesn’t.”

“We have a major legal impediment for a countywide minimum wage bill,” Stenger said. “And as a result, we can’t do it. And I will tell you my personal feelings on it are I wish we could. I really do. And if we could, I would. But we can’t. And that’s very unfortunate. And I wish that our charter were different. I wish that we had a basis upon which to make that change in the law.”

(The city's minimum wage increase will almost certainly face a lawsuit. And it's not out of the question that judges could ultimately strike it down.) 

Stenger and Council Chairman Pat Dolan, D-Richmond Heights, go through the agenda at Tuesday's meeting.
Credit Jason Rosenbaum, St. Louis Public Radio
Councilman Pat Dolan, right, says the county council has no plans to take up legislation raising the minimum wage in unincorporated St. Louis County. The council effectively killed such legislation earlier this year.

Stenger emphasized that he is “fully supportive of what the city did,” adding that he supports “all efforts to do the same on the state level.” But he reiterated that raising the minimum wage just in unincorporated St. Louis County -- which is all the County Council could do -- wouldn’t be logical or provide justice to workers.

“It becomes an issue of fairness,” Stenger said. “You know, we’re all one political subdivision. And parts of that political subdivision would have ‘x’ minimum wage and part would have ‘y.’ It just doesn’t make sense to do that – and in part it’s unfair. It treats different geographic areas of the county and the workers therein differently on the basis of where they work – which is not really fair to workers.”

It would be up to the County Council to decide on a minimum wage hike. But Council Chairman Pat Dolan, D-Richmond Heights, said he agreed with Stenger’s observations. And he said the council had no plans to revive legislation to raise the minimum wage.

“As it stands right now, we’re in the same position we were before,” Dolan said. “I personally agree that the minimum wage increase would be good. But as it stands right now per our charter, all we could do is enact it for the unincorporated area of the county. I just don’t think that would be equitable for the entire region to do it that way.”

What’s the impact?

Even if the county doesn’t follow suit with a minimum wage increase, some groups have expressed concern that the city’s action will still affect county businesses. 

St. Louis Mayor Francis Slay signs an increase in the St. Louis minimum wage into law on Aug. 28, 2015.
Credit Jason Rosenbaum I St. Louis Public Radio
St. Louis Mayor Francis Slay signed a minimum wage hike into law last week.

Hart Nelson of the St. Louis Regional Chamber recently put forth a hypothetical possibility of a landscaping business that would have to pay employees different wages in the city and the county. That type of arrangement, he said, would create a confusing regulatory environment.

“Anyone who is doing any work in the city – even if the headquarters is in the county somewhere – that they’re going to have to paid at this rate that may be higher,” Nelson said. “And so what you’re talking about is adding to costs to existing employers. So they’re going to have to track ‘all right, did my employee work in the city limits for three hours today and five hours somewhere else?’”

Asked if that type of scenario would negatively impact the county,” Stenger replied: “Well, it’s interesting that you would use the word impact.”

“I think it’s really important that they would actually conduct an economic impact study,” Stenger said. “And we would know the answer to your question. But unfortunately, the proponents did not conduct that study. So we won’t know that from a data standpoint.”

But at least one former St. Louis County business owner says the county may miss out in other ways by not adopting a corresponding minimum wage hike.  

Former Vintage Vinyl CEO Lew Prince said that some studies showed that “contiguous areas where the wage is higher in one place and lower in another, the place where it’s higher actually prospers more.”

He then provided the following message to county leaders: “St. Louis County, time to play catch-up!”

“The county will now have to start competing for the best workers and they’re going to lose to the city,” Prince said. “Businesses in the city are going to have their choice of entry-level and lower wage workers – and they’re going to end up with the better labor pool.” 

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