Government & Politics

Kansas City Council wrestles with living wage proposal

In March, demonstrators such as fast-food worker Amber Whitelow stopped at a Kansas City McDonald’s to call for a higher minimum wage.
In March, demonstrators such as fast-food worker Amber Whitelow stopped at a Kansas City McDonald’s to call for a higher minimum wage. deulitt@kcstar.com

Fast-food workers pleaded Thursday with the Kansas City Council to boost the city’s minimum wage, while restaurant and hotel representatives warned such a move would simply cost jobs.

The two sides squared off as the council wrestled with grass-roots petitioners’ proposal to increase minimum pay in the city from $7.65 to $10 per hour by Sept. 1 and to $15 per hour by 2020.

The group, consisting primarily of faith-based and social justice organizations, wants the council to swiftly approve such a law on its own, or at least put the “living wage” plan to a public vote on the Aug. 4 ballot.

City Clerk Marilyn Sanders confirmed late Thursday that the group had gathered more than the 3,572 valid signatures required to qualify for the ballot.

But the council’s deadline to approve August ballot language is next Thursday, which Mayor Sly James said leaves little time to sort through conflicting economic studies on the effects of raising the minimum wage.

“I’m looking for fairness,” James told a crowd of more than 80 people.

The mayor said he worries about unintended consequences, such as driving businesses out of the city or providing a small wage increase that just causes people to lose child care and Medicaid benefits.

The council heard more than two hours of public testimony, and members said they hope to hear from experts next Thursday before deciding the best path forward. They are looking for data on how minimum wage increases in other cities have affected job and business growth, city revenue and citizen well-being. Economic studies are mixed on those questions.

City Attorney Bill Geary said the council has several options: It can adopt its own measure to increase the local minimum wage, it can put something on the August ballot of its own choosing or it can approve the petitioners’ ballot language for August.

Many in the audience said they need help.

Terrance Wise, 35, told the council he has worked in the fast-food industry for 17 years and at Burger King for the last 11. He said he makes $8 per hour and hasn’t had a raise in years, which makes it very difficult to support his three daughters, ages 13, 12 and 10.

“They’re starving us with these poverty wages,” he said.

Osmara Ortiz agreed, saying she makes $8.30 per hour at Burger King. She said she and her husband struggle every day to make ends meet and support their child.

“It feels like a huge weight on top of me,” she said.

At the council’s invitation, University of Missouri-Kansas City associate economics professor Peter Eaton provided some facts, noting that nearly half of Missouri’s workers make less than $15 per hour. He pointed out that the Massachusetts Institute of Technology has a living wage calculator by geographical area. That calculator says a living wage for a single adult and child in Kansas City would be $18 per hour.

Eaton supported increasing the minimum wage but acknowledged there might be some adverse consequences if Kansas City is the only area city to act. He predicted the negative impact would be less than most people expect.

But Sam Silvio, owner of Em Chamas Brazilian Grill in Kansas City, North, warned that a $15 minimum wage would probably force him to relocate his restaurant to Parkville or Riverside. He said most of his 45 employees already make more than $10 per hour and his minimum wage workers are high school students.

Representatives of the Missouri Restaurant Association and the Hotel and Lodging Association of Greater Kansas City argued the wage increase would cost jobs and lead to businesses fleeing for neighboring suburbs at a time when Kansas City is trying to boost tourism, conventions and economic activity.

Bud Nicol, executive director of the lodging association, said he knew of several potential hotel projects in Kansas City that might get scuttled if the city continues with the higher minimum wage initiative.

To reach Lynn Horsley, call 816-226-2058 or send email to lhorsley@kcstar.com.

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