Editorial: Legislature blocks Kansas City’s $10 minimum wage, but the battle continues

A new state law will roll Kansas City’s minimum wage back to $7.70 on Monday, ignoring the will of Kansas City voters who approved a $10 wage earlier this month. But the fight for a higher minimum should continue.
A new state law will roll Kansas City’s minimum wage back to $7.70 on Monday, ignoring the will of Kansas City voters who approved a $10 wage earlier this month. But the fight for a higher minimum should continue. File photo

For four short days, the minimum wage in Kansas City was $10 per hour.

That wasn’t even enough time for the extra income to show up in workers’ next paychecks.

Voters overwhelmingly approved that wage earlier this month, a decision that went into effect on Thursday. But on Monday, we’re going back to the future, reversing course and lowering wages.

The modest $10 baseline for compensation has been negated by the Missouri legislature. The law preventing cities from setting their own minimum wage that takes effect Monday is an unnecessary overreach by lawmakers who tout the value of local control and then usurp the will of Kansas City voters.

The new state law locks cities into the paltry state minimum of $7.70. The legislature passed it during the final hours of the last session.

Lawmakers decided they understood the needs of this community better than local voters or the Kansas City Council, which approved a wage hike as well this year. The new law disregards the economic realities facing low-wage workers in urban areas, setting the same minimum pay for workers in the smallest villages and the biggest cities.

It’s worth noting that Kansas City voters weren’t deterred by the looming state law. Nearly 70 percent approved a ballot measure to hike the local minimum wage to $10 and to incrementally increase it to $15 by 2022.

The widespread support shows how far the conversation about minimum wages has advanced in recent years. Much of the broader understanding is due to the tireless advocacy of a contingent of voices. Clergy, social and economic justice organizations and labor played large roles, along with low-wage workers in the fast-food industry.

A statewide push

Those efforts will continue despite the roadblocks thrown up by the legislature. And a legal challenge to the state law remains a possibility.

Also, a statewide petition has been launched to raise Missouri’s minimum wage. The effort is focused on asking voters in 2018 to raise the current minimum of $7.70 to $12 by 2023.

The city isn’t through, either.

City Council member Katheryn Shields has introduced a promising measure that would ensure that businesses doing work for the city pay at least a $10 wage.

If it’s adopted, no business would be eligible for a city contract without voluntarily complying with the higher minimum that voters approved.

An important line in the proposal notes the social justice argument for a higher minimum wage: “Whereas, the action of the legislature does not diminish the moral responsibility of employers to pay a living wage to their employees.”

Employers can lead the way

Of course, nothing is stopping Kansas City employers from doing the right thing and taking the initiative to pay their employees at least a $10 wage.

The Kansas City Public Library system did just that recently, generating a bit of good publicity in the process and setting an example that other employers should follow.

Effective immediately, the library raised the minimum wage for employees to $10 an hour.

The timing was perfect, as the library rolled out the new policy just a few days before the state law took effect.

Library director Crosby Kemper III spoke to the economic realities of workers in his statement: “We, along with the City and the voters, believe it is a fair living wage — or at least the start of one. It is just the right thing to do.”

Kemper also stressed his belief that a higher wage would help the library system recruit and retain employees.

And yet, state politicians believe they know better.

The best response to that nonsense is for other Kansas City employers to emulate the library and boost pay to $10 per hour.

The push to pay the wage should be a citywide effort. The Civic Council of Greater Kansas City and the Greater Kansas City Chamber of Commerce could offer a jolt of momentum by lending their support. The business community’s embrace of a higher minimum could help broaden the discussion about wages and their impact on the local economy.

Kansas City businesses have an opportunity to send a strong message to the Missouri legislature by voluntarily reassessing their pay structure for low-wage workers.

Employers here know their own city and the cost of living here.

Their judgment — and that of voters — is far more important than the whims of Jefferson City politicians imposing a one-wage-fits-all statute on the state.