Four takeaways from the new report on raising St. Paul’s minimum wage

Jess Manthe, a longtime retail worker in St. Paul, speaks at a rally outside council chambers, calling poverty wages a barrier to the middle class for too many people in the city.

Low-wage workers listened as the author of a report on raising St. Paul’s minimum wage summarized her findings at yesterday’s City Council meeting. Then they put council members on notice.

“Now is the time for the city to take a stand and get us the wages we need,” personal care attendant Daniel Maddox, a member of the low-wage worker center CTUL, said during a brief rally outside council chambers.

Council members at the meeting indicated they plan to move at a more deliberate pace. Council President Amy Brendmoen said the plan is to “have an ordinance in front of us by fall.”

What that ordinance should look like is already the subject of a heated debate, as the report presented yesterday confirmed.

The nonpartisan Citizens League prepared the report to give council members an overview of available data and research on the topic, and to identify which constituencies are likely to be impacted by a higher minimum wage. It’s available on the Citizen League’s website.

Here are four takeaways from the report and Citizen League Executive Director Pahoua Yang Hoffman’s presentation to the Council yesterday.

1. Despite an unemployment rate of 3.1 percent, too many working people and families in St. Paul live in poverty.

The Met Council’s most recent analysis of census data shows 40.8 percent of St. Paul residents live in poverty, a higher rate than any other metro-area community. And areas of concentrated poverty are spreading within the city, a trend Ward 7’s Jane Prince called “disturbing.”

Jess Manthe, a longtime retail worker in St. Paul, called poverty wages a barrier to the middle class.

“I have huge amounts of (student) debt that I’ll carry with me for the next 25 years,” she said. “Our unlivable wages mean my husband and I aren’t going to be able to buy a house, and having kids is completely off the table. I think it’s time for St. Paul to invest in its workers.”

2. People working for poverty wages know their paychecks don’t get bigger by accident or their bosses’ goodwill.

In preparing the Citizens League’s report, Hoffman met with more than 100 “stakeholders.” In her presentation to the Council, she singled out the story of a retail janitor who, after 14 years on the job, has seen her wages increase from $7.25 to $10.75 per hour.

The state minimum wage has increased from $6.15 to $9.65 over the same time frame. “She wanted me to let you know that if not for a mandate, she may never get to $15,” Hoffman said.

3. The janitor working for $10.75 after 14 years on the job is not a statistical outlier. In St. Paul poverty wages affect workers of all ages.

Stereotypes that cast minimum-wage earners as students working around classes or retirees keeping themselves busy are bogus. The Citizens League report cites a 2016 study by the Roy Wilkins Center for Human Relations and Social Justice, which considered the impacts of a minimum-wage increase in Minneapolis and in Hennepin and Ramsey counties.

“There is no distinction between ages where there might be in other cities, where low-wage workers might be younger or older,” Hoffman said.

Tipped workers packed council chambers to hear the report on raising St. Paul’s minimum wage.

4. Whether it’s a tip penalty or a training wage, interest groups will attempt to poke holes in St. Paul’s minimum wage.

The Citizens League report reflects a split within the restaurant industry over the tip penalty, which allows employers to pay a sub-minimum wage as long as workers make up the difference in tips. Working people on both sides of the issue showed up in council chambers yesterday.

Servers who support a tip penalty say a lower minimum wage is vital to their employers’ profitability, as well as preservation of a tipping culture. Opponents argue the tip penalty opens the door to wage theft, as some employers fail to make up the difference between workers’ tips and the minimum wage.

Research also shows tip penalties contribute to a culture of sexual harassment in the restaurant industry. A study released earlier this month found female tipped workers in states like Minnesota experience report sexual harassment at half the rate of their counterparts in states with a lower minimum wage for tipped workers.

Catherine Olsen, a tipped worker at a small business in St. Paul, called on city officials to pass an ordinance lifting all workers to $15 per hour, with no tip penalty and no youth wage. “St. Paul has an opportunity to act now and act fast – and to not leave anybody behind,” she said.

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