Campaigns to raise the minimum wage are sweeping the country, and Kansas City has just joined in with a proposal to gradually boost minimum pay in the city to $15 an hour by 2020.
City officials say they are sympathetic to a crusade here from civil rights and religious leaders trying to improve the plight of the working poor.
But there’s a big problem, say Kansas City Mayor Sly James and other lawyers on the City Council. They’re convinced any push to raise the local minimum wage violates state law.
“I think it’s clear we cannot,” said Councilman Ed Ford, a lawyer who points to language in Missouri law that plainly forbids the adoption of local minimum-wage ordinances. “We can do only those things that the state allows us to do.”
James knows Seattle has received much attention nationally for boosting the minimum wage to $15 an hour over the next few years. But Seattle is in a state that doesn’t preempt that type of local control, as Missouri does.
“What Seattle is doing is great,” James said in a recent meeting. “But we ain’t Seattle.”
Those arguments aren’t stopping local groups, led by the Southern Christian Leadership Conference of Greater Kansas City, which say city leaders have a moral imperative to challenge state laws that impede helping poor people.
“Every advancement that has been social, of civil rights, economic rights … has been because people had to fight for those rights and had to have courage in the face of knowing that there would be opposition,” said Vernon Howard, executive vice president of social justice for the Kansas City SCLC.
Howard said that beginning in January 2014, the local SCLC began working on the rebirth of the “poor people’s campaign.” It’s intended to build on the initiative that Martin Luther King Jr. was focusing on when he was assassinated in 1968. The SCLC is joined by local chapters of the NAACP, Urban League, Urban Summit, Black United Front, Baptist Ministers Union, MORE2 and others.
Howard said all these organizations see too many struggling people in the urban core, in their houses of worship and at their food pantries.
“It’s the desperation of the people that we minister to in our pews and our community every week,” he said. “We’ve got to do something. We can’t wait.”
The group worked with Councilman Jermaine Reed, who on March 26 introduced an ordinance with little fanfare. It would bump Kansas City’s mandatory minimum wage from the current state-set minimum of $7.65 per hour to $10 per hour as of Sept. 1, with incremental increases to $15 an hour by September 2020.
“A lot of employers have stepped up to the plate and offered their employees a living wage,” Reed said. “It’s important that we do increase it to keep up with the changing times.”
But that may take a while at the city level.
In other cities that have considered raising their mandatory minimum wage, there’s been considerable pushback from the restaurant and business communities. But that has not happened yet in Kansas City.
Ford said that’s because the business community knows the city can’t do this, “so why should they waste any efforts?”
James and City Attorney Bill Geary have also warned about unintended consequences if the city were to raise the minimum wage. It could bump people just above the eligibility level for state-subsidized child care or Medicaid benefits.
Howard and Reed dismissed that argument.
“Do we want to keep people stuck in a cycle of dependence and poverty, or do we want to begin to take the hard road to allow people to be independent,” Howard said, “and raise the bottom so that workers can have dignity.”
Bills pending in the House and Senate prohibit cities from requiring any employer to provide either minimum pay or benefits that exceed the requirements of federal and state law. The bills’ prospects are uncertain, but they still have a chance until the session ends May 15.
Both bills are backed by the Missouri Chamber of Commerce, according to Tracy King, vice president of governmental affairs for the group.
King said the Missouri chamber is aware of the Kansas City initiative, but was motivated even earlier by concerns about the higher minimum-wage trend nationally. Most laws have been in cities on the West Coast, in New Mexico or in the Washington, D.C., area.
King said the Missouri chamber believes strongly that allowing cities to establish their own minimum wage will create a patchwork of regulations that would tarnish Missouri’s reputation as a business-friendly state. She said the chamber wants a uniform state workplace standard on this issue, as exists in 13 other states.
She pointed out that many higher minimum-wage laws are coming from cities in California.
“We don’t want to be the next California,” she said.
Jason Hancock contributed to this report.