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St. Louis aldermen push forward minimum wage hike bill

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ST. LOUIS • The Board of Aldermen returned to City Hall on Tuesday and pushed forward a bill that could give minimum-wage workers in the city a pay raise.

Last month, the aldermen left for vacation without taking action on a measure to institute a higher citywide minimum wage by 2020. An original proposal mandated raising the wage to $15 an hour, but supporters eventually lowered the number in order to gain support.

On Tuesday morning, they debated a substitute bill to raise the minimum to $13 an hour by 2020, before eventually settling on $11 an hour by 2018.

It will require one more vote, expected on Friday afternoon, before it goes to St. Louis Mayor Francis Slay, a proponent of the bill who made a rare appearance Tuesday on the aldermanic chamber floor as a show of support.

Supporters say it will give a boost to workers struggling to survive on the state’s $7.65-an-hour minimum wage and give them more spending power in the city. Others argue it will send jobs in a fragile St. Louis economy across the city’s borders, where wages could be significantly lower, worsening the struggling city’s ability to compete for jobs and hurting the people it’s intended to help.

The bill, pushed forward by a 15-6 vote, would raise the minimum to $8.25 an hour upon passage, then increase it to $9 an hour on Jan. 1, 2016. The rate would increase to $10 an hour in 2017, and then $11 an hour on Jan. 1, 2018.

Proponents are racing to meet an Aug. 28 deadline. Last month, Gov. Jay Nixon, a Democrat, vetoed a bill that would take effect on that day to ban municipalities from instituting their own minimum wage outside of the state’s. But many prognosticate that the Missouri Legislature could return in September to override Nixon’s veto.

Alderman Shane Cohn, the chief sponsor of the bill, introduced the substitute bill, saying, “We are not giving people money, they are earning money — $7.65 is not enough to survive.”

A recent study by the National Low Income Housing Coalition found that the average hourly wage needed to afford a standard two-bedroom apartment in St. Louis is $15.69.

The bill would exempt small businesses who employ 15 people or fewer, or businesses that do less than $500,000 in gross annual sales. Failure to comply could lead to employers’ getting fined up to $500 per violation, jail terms of 90 days and a potential business license revocation.

The city’s action on the issue is in stark contrast to neighboring St. Louis County, which in July declined to institute its own minimum wage. That difference spurred significant debate on Tuesday.

An amendment to make the city’s minimum wage contingent on St. Louis County’s passage of a similar ordinance failed. Proponents hope to use the city’s passage to get the county, or some of its municipalities, to take action.

Cities nationwide have pushed for higher minimum wages. Los Angeles recently instituted a $15-an-hour minimum wage to be phased in by 2020. Kansas City passed a bill last month that would boost its minimum to $13 an hour by 2020.

Proponents believe the city actions are necessary to raise the issue statewide and nationally, where the federal minimum wage has stood at $7.25 since 2009.

“It’s important for locals to act when others don’t,” said Lara Granich, the director of Missouri Jobs with Justice.

Still, if approved, the bill could face a legal challenge.

Supporters were able to get 15 of 28 votes, the minimum needed to pass the bill later this week. Eight aldermen weren’t present for the vote: Ken Ortmann, Steve Conway, Carol Howard, Joe Roddy, Marlene Davis, Jeffrey Boyd, Frank Williamson and Lyda Krewson.

Six aldermen voted no on the bill: Jack Coatar, Joseph Vollmer, Tom Villa, Donna Baringer, Joe Vacarro and Antonio French.

French, the only alderman from north St. Louis to vote against the bill, said the real issue was the lack of jobs.

“That’s our biggest problem in the city of St. Louis,” French said.

French said the city had been competing against St. Louis County for jobs and population.

“And quite frankly the city of St. Louis has been losing for many years,” French said.

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Nicholas J.C. Pistor is a reporter for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.

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