Minimum wage debate takes off in St. Paul
Tom Stockstill capped his early morning Black Friday shift at Herberger’s by joining dozens of protesters across the parking lot, who were chanting in front of Walmart in St. Paul’s Midway neighborhood.
“What do we want? $15! When do we want it? Now!” he and other supporters of a $15 minimum wage yelled. For Stockstill, the change would boost his hourly wage by $5.50 and move him out of the “crackerbox” room he lives in.
A powerful coalition of unions, progressive activists and religious leaders are amplifying stories like Stockstill’s. The group that pushed Minneapolis to institute a $15 minimum wage for all workers has turned its influence and energy to St. Paul. They recently called on Mayor-elect Melvin Carter to uphold his campaign promise of passing a citywide minimum wage by the end of summer 2018. Although Carter will not take office until January, supporters and opponents of a new minimum wage have been discussing it for months.
Service industry members are holding listening sessions, the nonpartisan Citizens League is preparing to study the change, Midway Chamber of Commerce had a minimum wage discussion with City Council President Russ Stark and the coalition of supporters kicked off their efforts with a September protest outside City Hall. Even a high school algebra class at Washington Technology Magnet School is talking about it.
The class invited Council Member Amy Brendmoen to discuss the issue last month. Together, they did the math. If someone is making $10 an hour, just over the state minimum of $9.50, how much is left over for gas or groceries or haircuts after they pay $900 for rent? Not much, they discovered.
Carter and some council members say a citywide minimum wage is one of the best ways to help the 22 percent of St. Paul residents living below the poverty line. While the change has long seemed inevitable — all the top mayoral contenders backed a $15 minimum — the details of how to enact it and whether to exempt some workers is up for debate.
“I have a very open mind. I really look forward to hearing what the Citizens League finds out,” Brendmoen said. “It’s much more of a conversation about what’s right for us, because we’re not Minneapolis, we’re not Seattle, but we do want people to be paid a living wage.”
‘A thousand questions’
The coalition of minimum wage supporters is similar to the group that encouraged St. Paul to pass a paid sick-leave requirement. An organizer said they plan to hold protests, meetings and rallies to push for change.
Citywide support is necessary to overcome pushback against the $15 minimum, Carter said at an October mayoral debate hosted by interfaith advocacy group ISAIAH, a coalition member. He told attendees he would work alongside them on the issue.
“This is absolutely critical,” Carter said at the time. “As mayor, my goal will be to sign a $15 minimum wage with no tip penalty into law by the end of next summer.”
Days after he was elected, Carter reiterated that the minimum wage will be one of his first priorities. He announced Monday that Gov. Mark Dayton’s Chief of Staff Jaime Tincher will be his deputy mayor. She helped Dayton secure a state minimum wage increase, from $6.15 to $9.50.
Stark said he expects the minimum wage will be one of the first things the next mayor discusses with council members. But it remains to be seen whether the majority of council members agree with Carter that the city should not create an exemption for tipped workers and how they will handle other variables, like the phase-in process and wages for part-time student workers.
Business community members want to address wage issues, but the solution should be gradual and work for both employers and employees, said Chad Kulas, executive director of the Midway Chamber of Commerce, which hosted the discussion with Stark.
“We want the conversation to be how to reduce poverty,” Kulas said.
St. Paul’s poverty advisory committee urged city leaders this summer to work with state and federal officials to mitigate the “cliff effect.” That occurs when someone gains a marginal wage increase but is then disqualified from child care, housing or other assistance programs.
“Yes, I think we need to move to $15 an hour minimum wage, but I think there are a thousand questions beneath that,” Stark said. “What are both the effects that are intended and what are any unintended effects?”
If St. Paul passes a minimum wage ordinance, it could face challenges from outside the city. State legislators who tried to block local minimum wage ordinances last year could make another attempt. And the Minnesota Chamber of Commerce is suing Minneapolis, arguing they don’t have the power to set a minimum wage that differs from state law.
Minneapolis approved a $15 minimum wage in June and will phase in the increase over five to seven years. The first uptick for large businesses, to $10 per hour, comes in January.
Tip debate underway
The treatment of tipped employees was the most controversial piece of Minneapolis’s minimum wage discussions.
The $15 minimum wage supporters who protested in front of the St. Paul Walmart on Friday were adamant that a new minimum wage should apply to everyone, including those who rely on tips.
“Similar to in Minneapolis, I hope that City Hall sees that one fair wage is something we should be proud of in Minnesota and protect and preserve,” said Celeste Robinson, with the advocacy group 15 Now Minnesota.
But many servers and restaurateurs disagree, arguing that would result in a pay cut for servers, increased food prices and potential layoffs and closures.
“It’s no longer a question of if it will happen, but how it will happen,” W.A. Frost server Matt Gray told a room full of service industry workers during a listening session this month at Happy Gnome. Some attendees were part of the group that unsuccessfully advocated for tips to be counted as wages in Minneapolis.
St. Paul could be different, because restaurant and bar workers have more time to organize and share their message, said Jennifer Schellenberg, a Minneapolis bartender who is helping with the effort. Servers have been canvassing bars and restaurants, holding listening sessions and encouraging people to contact city leaders.
“You guys actually have a fighting chance,” Schellenberg told fellow wait staff and chefs. “I know that St. Paul is still listening.”
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