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City sets wage amount, legal
fight expected

by Valerie Verkamp
Landmark assistant editor

The Kansas City Council voted Thursday to gradually raise the minimum wage to $13 per hour by 2020.

Employees will notice a slight bump in their wage as early as Aug. 24. On that date, Kansas City employers must begin paying their employees at least $8.50 per hour. Come Jan. 1, 2017, the minimum wage will rise to $9.82.

On Jan. 1, 2018, the minimum wage increases by a $1.14 to $10.96 per hour. In 2019, the ordinance will require employers to pay their employees at least a “living wage” of $11.98.

By 2020, a number of employees will be earning $5.35 more than the current state mandated minimum wage of $7.65 per hour.

Beginning 2021 and each year thereafter, the minimum wage would be adjusted based on the cost of living.

Ben Cover, economist with the Bureau of Labor Statistics, said in May 2014 a quarter of workers in Kansas City, Missouri-Kansas earned less than $11.32 per hour. In other words, 1 in 4 employees working 40 hours per week earn less than $23,545 a year.

City officials said most minimum wage workers are adults working full-time of 40 hours per week to earn $290 a week.

“When I reported on the State of the City last spring, I said our entire community would suffer as long as people who work hard are unable to bring home enough money to provide for their families,” Mayor Sly James said. “Our action today is an attempt to do the right thing not just for minimum-wage workers today, but for the future of Kansas City.”

City council members were quick to point out that the mechanism used to provide Kansas Citians a higher minimum wage was not ideal, but indicated a full-time employee making at least $13 per hour, or $27,040 a year, is step in the right direction.

“We are sending a message to the country that even though Congress to date has failed to act on what I think should be their responsibility to raise the national minimum wage, which has been neglected way too long, we can be a part of a grassroots movement in this country to enact reasonable minimum wage legislation,” said Councilman John Sharp.

The ordinance applies to Kansas City employers with 15 or more employees. The ordinance does not recognize individuals completing an educational internship or apprenticeship as an employee. Individuals serving on a voluntary basis for charitable, religious, and non-profit organizations are also not considered employees entitled to the proposed minimum wage increase.

Employers must pay their employees who receive tips at least half of the state-mandated minimum wage.

On Thursday, a point of contention centered on whether persons 18 years of age or younger should be considered a qualifying employee under the city mandated ordinance.

Councilman Ed Ford of the Northland made the argument that earning a living wage was less of an importance to youth than it was to the estimated 50,000 adults whose income would go toward health insurance, housing, and food for their families.

“At 18 you're in high school. You are working part-time not full-time. The vast majority are kids that are trying to cover a cell phone bill and an auto insurance bill. This is not the age of social justice. This is the age where kids learn to get a job, learn work ethic and all that. If you restrict it to 17 you are really putting these 18-year-olds at a disadvantage of getting these part-time jobs,” said Ford.

Ford urged city officials to maintain an exemption that would prevent workers 18-years of age or younger from being part of the city mandated minimum wage

Mayor Sly James also favored exempting teenagers eighteen years and younger.

“There are studies that show that for every 15 percent increase in the wage, 2.1 percent of teenagers drop out of the job market. That is what I am trying to protect,” said James.

In the end, a majority favored a measure that exempts teenagers 17 and younger from qualifying for the minimum wage mandate.

The historic minimum wage initiative was introduced four months ago by Third District Councilman Jermaine Reed.

The plan initially was reviewed by the Planning, Zoning, and Economic Development Committee. One month later, the proposed ordinance was re-introduced to a Committee of the Whole where all members of the city council were in attendance.

Over the past few months, the committee heard expert testimony on how the local economy would be affected by a city mandated minimum wage increase they said is aimed at helping the working poor.

After the ordinance passed with overwhelming support of the council, James personally thanked Wagner and Reed and the entire city council for the work on getting the measure passed.

“I hope they agree with me that our work the past few weeks is among the most important we have done together,” he said.

In his closing statement, James said, “We believe we have an obligation to raise people up by increasing their wage by the extent we can.”

Ford, who cast the sole dissenting vote, said the federal and state minimum wage has neither “kept up” with productivity nor inflation. Despite what he sees as a social injustice issue, Ford said he is “deeply conflicted.”

“I think we are giving false hope here. I think it is clear that we don't have the legal authority to raise the minimum wage.”

But 12 other members of the council indicated willingness to have their decision eventually brought before Missouri courts.

All along while delving into this minimally charted territory, Wagner said he was sure that a lawsuit challenging the city’s legal authority to enact the ordinance would follow the historic decision.

“I don't want to give anyone a false sense of hope, because I am not as hopeful as some might be, but I don't mind standing up and saying 'we are for this today' and we want to create some equity in our city,” said Wagner.