Fight for $15 moves to city hall

Supporters of a $15 minimum wage ordinance display more than 2,000 petitions signed by supporters at a press conference outside city hall.

After months of neighborhood organizing that sometimes spilled over into the streets, St. Paul workers who want a higher minimum wage are bringing their fight to city hall.

“We have waited over a year as the city has discussed this issue,” said Pastor James Erlandson of Lutheran Church of the Redeemer in St. Paul. “The time for debate is over. It’s time to pass the ordinance.”

Erlandson and other supporters of a $15 minimum wage staged a press conference today in advance of the City Council’s public hearing on the issue tonight.

The hearing will follow a presentation by the Citizens League on the findings of a committee charged with studying the issue over the summer. The 21 business owners, low-wage workers, nonprofit executives and other stakeholders did not issue a stand-alone recommendation to the council. Rather, they forwarded three “scenarios for consideration,” all of which would put St. Paul on the path to a $15 minimum wage, with annual inflationary increases.

That’s a big win for low-wage workers in St. Paul and the organizations – unions included – fighting to raise the wage. It’s a win, too, for the city’s voters, who elected Mayor Melvin Carter to a landslide victory last fall on a platform that included full-throated support for $15.

Tou Vang, an organizer with Hmong Americans for Justice, praised the committee for recognizing the “crisis of poverty” in St. Paul. It’s estimated that one of every four St. Paul workers earns less than $15 per hour, and 40.8 percent of St. Paul residents live in poverty, a higher rate than any other metro-area community.

“In addition to the committee’s research and discussion, it’s clear the outcomes of the process were influenced by years of workers rallying, striking and organizing for living wages and dignity,” Vang added.

(Citizens League)

Carve outs still at issue

While the study committee’s three scenarios all embrace $15, they do provide exemptions for city-approved youth training programs and employers who hire workers with disabilities. The scenarios also differ in how long employers would have to phase in the full $15 minimum wage ­(between four and seven years, depending on the size of the employer).

One scenario includes a subminimum wage for tipped workers in “full service restaurants,” which unions and many restaurant workers oppose. In fact, the study committee included a scenario with the “tip credit,” as its known to supporters, even though it failed to receive support from a majority of committee members.

The issue has been a point of contention at two public input sessions hosted by the city so far. (Two more sessions are scheduled later this month.)

Servers and bartenders in many states with a subminimum “tipped wage” rely almost entirely on their customers’ goodwill for their incomes, a dynamic that, as several studies show, puts workers at a greater risk of experiencing sexual harassment and wage theft.

Erin Lynch, a tipped worker in St. Paul, said she already experiences sexual harassment on the job, even though Minnesota is one of seven “equal treatment states,” with no tip credit on the books.

“I’m forced to weigh my dignity in these situations against my income in the form of tips,” Lynch said. “A tip penalty forces workers like me to rely more on tips in situations like these, and to put up with inappropriate behavior to supplement my income.”

A push to be bold

As council members begin the work of crafting an ordinance, two recently released reports provide fodder for advocates pushing strong, progressive action.

Last week researchers at the University of California Berkely issued an analysis of trends in the first six major U.S. cities to raise the minimum wage higher than $10. The team of economists found significant pay increases and, critically, no significant employment reductions in the six cities.

“When these minimum wage policies were being considered, some predicted that they would lead to significant job losses,” co-author Carl Nadler said. “We did not find such job losses. We did find that these cities’ minimum wage policies increased the earnings of low-wage workers, just as intended.”

Earlier this year Working America, the community affiliate of the AFL-CIO, surveyed more than 500 people working in St. Paul, and their responses, analyzed in a report issued last month, shed more light on the city’s crisis of poverty.

Nearly half of workers reported earning $10 per hour or less, with 90 percent earning less than $15. Half of those surveyed said their income provides support for someone else – a loved one or family member – as well as themselves.

What would $15 mean for workers surveyed? Paying down debt or paying bills on time was the most frequent response. Others included improved housing options, less anxiety and more time with family.

That’s the case for Marfa Malcolm, who shuttles between three different jobs as a caregiver, and her 16-year-old daughter, who works in food service on weekends to help support their family.

“There are days when I work the overnight shift and I come in by 8 o’clock, and she’s gone to school,” Malcolm said outside city hall today. “When I go home and she’s home, I have to be doing my other part-time job. I can’t get to spend time with her, and she really needs me.

“So if you value family, I think you should pass $15 now.”

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