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Missouri House Committee Debates Delaying Minimum Wage Increases

Boxes of signatures were delivered to the Sec. of State's office on May 2, 2018, for a ballot initiative that would raise Missouri's minimum wage.
File photo | Erin Achenbach | St. Louis Public Radio
Republican lawmakers argue that in 2018 Missouri voters passed a gradual increase in the state minimum wage without full knowledge of the "unintended consequences" on businesses.

Missouri lawmakers are debating a bill that aims to delay planned increases in the state minimum wage.

In 2018, Missouri voters — with a 62% majority — approved a gradual increase in the minimum wage up to $12 an hour by 2023. The minimum wage is currently $10.30.

But Rep. Cody Smith, R-Carthage, wants lawmakers to take a look at the “unintended consequences” that he said wage increases are having on medical providers and other employers.

During a meeting of the House Special Committee on Small Business on Tuesday, Smith walked back a more “aggressive” plan, which he previously introduced. That proposal would have reverted the state minimum wage to the federal benchmark of about $8 an hour.

Smith said there were too many philosophical differences between lawmakers to move that proposal forward, and he’s instead suggesting a three-year delay in the planned increases.

“[To] make this more palatable to the business community, to the health care community, particularly, and give them a little more time to adapt to this over the course of time rather than hitting them with this suddenly,” he said.

Smith said nursing homes and in-home care providers that rely on state subsidies have told him they can’t afford to pay the higher wages because they cannot increase their prices.

Representatives of the Missouri Health Care Association, the Missouri Chamber and CoxHealth, an in-home medical services company, testified in favor of the bill during a public comment period.

Democrats took issue with Smith’s framing of the problem — that employers are having a hard time keeping staff because of the recent increases to the minimum wage.

Rep. Steve Butz, D-St. Louis, said as an employer himself he disagrees.

“It’s the tight labor market, it is not the increase of the minimum wage,” he said. “I mean, if you want good employees you have got to pay.”

Mallory Rusch is the executive director of Empower Missouri, a nonprofit that advocates for basic human rights. She testified against the bill, arguing that the planned increases are expected to help 600,000 Missourians.

“To tell them now to wait another four years to get to those wages seems incredibly unfair,” she said. Rusch said raising the minimum wage will also help reduce food insecurity and poor health outcomes.

Members of the Fight for $15 campaign, Missouri Jobs with Justice and SEIU Local 1 held a press conference ahead of the committee meeting on Tuesday to voice their concerns against the original plan to reduce the minimum wage. The groups advocate for a $15 minimum wage.

Vicki Bates, an SEIU member and home care worker in St. Louis, said reducing the minimum wage would add more financial stress to her family situation. She helps provide for her mother, son and grandchildren.

“And this pandemic, it’s kind of hard because I have to take a risk on bringing stuff home to my mother, which I’m trying to keep her safe,” she said.

Rep. Rasheen Aldridge, D-St. Louis, started organizing with the Fight for $15 campaign as an 18-year-old food service worker before getting into politics.

During the press conference, he said slashing the minimum wage is “a direct attack” on food service workers who are already struggling during the pandemic.

“You have not leaders, you have elected officials — because they aren’t fit if you ask me to lead — that are saying that everyday working people do not deserve to have a livable wage,” he said. “And I just think that is shameful, it is unhuman, and it ain’t right.”

Lawmakers, split on the issue along party lines, are expected to continue debating the bill to delay the minimum wage increase in the House Special Committee on Small Business.

Follow Corinne on Twitter: @corinnesusan

Corinne is the economic development reporter at St. Louis Public Radio.