After six weeks of talking past one another, as Mayor Sly James has put it, stakeholders pushing for and against a proposed increase in Kansas City’s minimum wage seemed to recognize a glimmer of common ground in a work session on Monday.
Although the two sides remain hopelessly divided on a proposal to boost the minimum wage in Kansas City to $15 an hour by 2020 or 2021, they found a point of agreement that a wage floor approaching $9 an hour could be appropriate for the local economy today.
This represents a breakthrough opportunity that should not be squandered. Kansas City could establish itself as a leader, and burnish its image as a progressive and desirable place, by agreeing that a minimum wage in the $9-an-hour neighborhood would be an appropriate starting point to help lessen the economic burden on many low-wage workers.
If a modest increase would be enacted, real data could be studied on its effects and the city could counter overly alarmist rhetoric of the kind issued this week by the Greater Kansas City Chamber of Commerce.
The $9 figure comes from a study by an economist at the University of Massachusetts who suggests that from region to region across the country a reasonable minimum wage would be set at 50 percent of an area’s median income. That’s roughly where the minimum wage stood in the late 1960s, before entering a protracted slide.
In the Kansas City metro area, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the median hourly wage in 2014 was $17.55. That would translate to a minimum wage of $8.78.
The Missouri minimum wage currently stands at $7.65 an hour.
The Kansas City Council on Thursday will hear a report on these work sessions and arguments from both sides intended to shape a proposed ordinance. The council was forced to act after a grassroots petition drive successfully jump-started the issue in May. That proposal would increase the city minimum wage to $10 an hour by Sept. 1 and to $15 by 2020. The council must decide whether to put it on a ballot and whether to pass or rework a proposed ordinance based on the petition and submitted by council member Jermaine Reed..
James on Monday repeated his frustration over having to address a “huge public policy debate” with insufficient time and data.
The $15-an-hour movement is underway across the nation, pushed by activist and labor groups admirably hoping to improve the plight of the working poor. A minimum wage, even at $15 an hour, is hardly a living wage for many people, they argue, and the effort is intended to counter a general economic tide toward low-wage jobs.
The business side of the table rejects the idea that a minimum wage should be seen as a living wage and contends that any increase will have harmful effects on employers, employees and the city economy.
Eventual increases to $15 an hour have been adopted in Seattle, San Francisco, Los Angeles and elsewhere, all cities with much higher costs of living than the Kansas City area. That’s one significant reason The Star hesitates to jump on the $15 bandwagon.
If the council agrees on a higher wage floor, the going gets more difficult from there as it navigates sharply conflicting views on incremental increases in subsequent years, certain exemptions for small businesses and other factors.
Complicating all of this is the looming effect of a provision in a bill awaiting Gov. Jay Nixon’s signature that would prohibit cities from establishing their own wage floors. So litigation could follow any council action to boost the minimum wage.
But act it should. Responsibly and compassionately.