Missouri’s new preemption law cheats 38,000 workers out of a raise

Minimum wage workers in St. Louis just had a taste of what life might be like with a raise, only to have it taken back by the Missouri state legislature. St. Louis is part of a growing number of cities across the country seeking to raise their own minimum wage by city ordinance.

In 2015, the City of St. Louis passed an ordinance establishing a minimum wage for the city that was higher than Missouri’s minimum wage.  In the bill’s preamble, the City’s leaders explained the need for a wage increase for the its poorest workers:

WHEREAS, the defining issues of our time include the increase in income inequality, the growing gap between rich and poor, and the obstacles preventing people from rising into the middle class; and . . .

WHEREAS, low-wage workers in the St. Louis region struggle to meet their most basic needs and to provide their children a stable foundation, a safe dwelling, and an opportunity to obtain a high-quality education; and . . .

WHEREAS, minimum wage laws promote the general welfare, health, and prosperity of the City of St. Louis by ensuring that workers can better support and care for their families and fully participate in the community[.]

In 2015, Missouri’s state minimum wage was pegged at $7.65 per hour, and by passing its local ordinance, St. Louis raised it to $8.25 for employees working within the city limits.  Because of that ordinance, St. Louis’ minimum wage rose to $9.00 in 2016, and $10.00 on January 1, 2017. Meanwhile, the state’s minimum wage barely budged to $7.70 during that same time period.

While St. Louis passed the local minimum wage ordinance in 2015, low-wage workers within the city limits did not get their first raise until May 5, 2017, now at $10 per hour, because a group of employers sued the city and had the local ordinance tied up in litigation for nearly two years.  The Missouri Supreme Court found in favor of the City, and 31,000 St. Louis workers affected by the local ordinance when it rose the minimum wage to $10 have finally received the benefit of a higher minimum wage that their local government officials intended. Another 7,000 workers would benefit from the ordinance’s next scheduled minimum wage increase to $11 per hour by January 2018, for a total of 38,000 workers.

But on May 22, 2017, the Republican-dominated Missouri state legislature passed a preemption law that prohibits cities from requiring a minimum wage higher than the state’s. Governor Eric Greitens (R) said he does not intend to veto the bill, allowing it to go into effect without his signature on August 28.

How state preemption of local government works:

In law, the term “preemption” refers to situations in which a law passed by a higher government authority supersedes a law passed by a lower one. So a law passed by a state legislature (or a provision of the state Constitution) supersedes an ordinance passed by a local government, like a city council.  In these situations, when a statewide law conflicts with a local ordinance or rule, the statewide law prevails. This means that St. Louis’ minimum wage floor will sink back down to the state’s $7.70 per hour when the preemption law goes into effect this August.

In this case, State Rep Jason Chipman (R) sponsored the Missouri minimum wage preemption bill. Chipman represents a district southwest of St. Louis, where the federal poverty rate is approximately 19.3%, a wealthier part of the state overall than the City of St. Louis, in which has a poverty rate of 25.5%.

Chipman said, “If an employee doesn’t like what’s being offered, they can go somewhere else. Be more productive. Be worth more.” He added, “These are supposed to be entry-level jobs,” and said, “We understand there are people who rely on these jobs who are not entry-level-type people, but you can’t legislate by the exception.”

But Rep. Chipman is wrong about the demographics of the 38,000 St. Louis minimum wage workers affected by their city’s attempt to increase their pay—which shouldn’t be surprising, seeing as how Chipman does not represent citizens of the city of St. Louis. The majority of affected workers are women (56 percent) and the overwhelming majority (over 90 percent) are adults, age 20 or older, who are working full time. More than one in four of the minimum wage workers affected have children. Roughly half are either in poverty or living with family incomes less than 200% of the federal poverty line.

While Rep. Chipman and the Republican-controlled state legislature may not understand how raising the abysmally low minimum wage will help the workers in St. Louis, the City itself surely does. As the City explained in their minimum wage bill,

“[T]he population of the City of St. Louis suffers from higher rates of poverty than surrounding areas and . . . many workers in the City of St. Louis cannot fully participate in our region’s dynamic civic life or pursue the myriad educational, cultural, and recreational opportunities that constitute a flourishing life because many struggle to meet their households’ most basic needs. . . .”

What this whole preemption debate boils down to is this: America’s low-wage workers need better jobs, and better opportunities. Local governments, like St. Louis, are taking action to help the workers struggling in their cities. But corporate-backed lobbying groups like the American Legislative Exchange Council – which drafted a model law called the “Living Wage Mandate Preemption Act” —are pushing state legislatures to take those advances away. It’s time to fight back.