KC vote on minimum wage increase could be meaningful or meaningless

One low-wage worker tells why the local wage floor is too low

Low-wage worker April Shabazz hopes Kansas City voters send a message about the need for many workers to earn higher pay. A proposal to raise Kansas City's minimum wage will go before voters on Aug. 8. The state of Missouri says cities can't raise
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Low-wage worker April Shabazz hopes Kansas City voters send a message about the need for many workers to earn higher pay. A proposal to raise Kansas City's minimum wage will go before voters on Aug. 8. The state of Missouri says cities can't raise

Kansas City voters on Aug. 8 can vote whether to raise the city’s minimum wage above Missouri’s — something the state legislature says a city can’t do.

Question No. 3 is fairly simple: “Shall the City of Kansas City enact now a municipal minimum wage of $10 per hour on August 24, 2017, and increased annually by $1.25 per hour beginning September 1, 2019, to reach $15 per hour in 2022?”

It reaches voters through an initiative petition, and judging from voting records and polling around the country, the measure would pass.

But approval won’t mean automatic raises because the state has barred local wage prerogatives.

Missouri lawmakers have nullified a higher St. Louis minimum wage that has been in effect since May. On Aug. 28, when the state ban goes into effect, the $10-an-hour St. Louis minimum — already being paid in that city — will roll back to the state’s $7.70 rate.

The Kansas City Council also had voted in March 2017 to implement a higher minimum wage that was intended to raise the city’s minimum to $8.50 on Sept. 18, 2017. The state pre-emption leaves that up in the air as well.

Bob Bonney, CEO of the Missouri Restaurant Association, said legal counsel advises that no jurisdiction in Missouri can raise its mandatory minimum above the federal or state level.

So why bother with the Kansas City election if the state pre-empts it and other attempts?

“It’s not moot. It’s a fight filled with legal challenges,” said the Rev. Vernon Howard, a lead Kansas City advocate for higher wages. “We knew the legislature would act as it did, but we’re not daunted.”

Howard said proponents are investigating legal remedies to the state ban. Meanwhile, even if they don’t have a legal strategy yet, supporters want voters to send a “livable wage” message and lay groundwork for a statewide ballot measure next year.

Kansas City home health care worker April Shabazz, who earns less than $10 an hour, said she hopes people understand that rate isn’t a living wage in the current economy.

“It’s not enough to pay basic expenses,” said Shabazz, who’s been a health care worker for 30 years. “It’s not just a wage for teenagers. Adults earn that, too.”

Supporters of higher minimum wages believe their campaigns can educate people about economic realities.

“Symbolic victories become social victories,” said the Rev. Tex Sample, another proponent. “How can the state tell the people, in referendum, that they cannot do it?”

The main reason the issue is on the city ballot is that the Missouri Supreme Court has held that it won’t rule on the legality of an ordinance proposed through initiative petition unless and until voters have adopted it. The court had decided in January that the initiative petition must be presented to voters and that future legal challenges would need to resolve the conflict between city ordinance and state law.

As election day looms, backers are manning phone banks and finding that many Kansas Citians don’t know that a minimum wage issue will be on the ballot. Others are misinformed about the details.

“The number of people not aware of the August 8 election is astounding,” said Emily Riegel, a board member with Indivisible KC, who said many potential voters also don’t know about the incremental nature of the proposal.

Riegel said she’s heard negative reaction in her phone bank calls from people who don’t earn $15 an hour themselves, who can’t endorse a big raise for the least-skilled workers, or who believe that minimum wage workers already are paid what they’re worth.

“But it’s not an immediate $15 an hour, anyway,” said the Rev. James Tindall, another supporter. “We need to be clear on that.…It’s a way for people ultimately to have a living wage.”

Even if incremental, mandated minimum wage increases, especially if adopted piecemeal, are opposed by the Missouri Chamber of Commerce and Industry.

“It does not make sense to make one of our state’s largest economic regions an island that employers avoid because of increased labor costs,” said chamber CEO Daniel Mehan. “If you think that raising labor costs in an area isn’t going to deter business growth and opportunities you are fooling yourself…Labor rates should be set by the market, not a mandate by local governments.”

Separate from the initiative petition on the Aug. 8 ballot, the city of Kansas City had passed a minimum wage law in 2015, but that provision never went into effect. The state also had countered then that no city could pass a higher minimum than the state’s.

Historically, voter turnout is low for summer elections in Kansas City. If the Aug. 8 turnout is as low as expected, the minimum wage question — needing only a simple majority to pass — could get as few as 12,000 votes to pass, some of its advocates predicted.

If it passes, then what? The city’s legal department says it will decide how to proceed after the election.

Dan Boatright, an attorney in the Kansas City office of Littler Mendelson, said it’s unlikely that Kansas City advocates could find a constitutional challenge to the state pre-emption. Advocates for a higher minimum more likely would pursue a state referendum.

To put a statewide referendum on the ballot, they need to get signatures from 5 percent of the registered voters in two-thirds of the state’s voting districts, Boatright said.

A statewide petition could seek removal of the pre-emption or it could legislate a higher minimum, say for cities of a certain size, Boatright said, suggesting possible options.

However the Aug. 8 election turns out, “a legal battle ahead does not necessarily deter people,” Howard said. “We’re going to do all we can within the political process to bring about our goals.”

Opponents say they do that at the peril of the low-wage workers they’re trying to assist. Bonney, with the restaurant group, said layoffs, fewer hours or automation could result.

Diane Stafford: 816-234-4359, @kcstarstafford