Friday, October 31, 2014
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"Living Wage" laws at issue in Minneapolis and St. Paul

The Minneapolis City Council Friday is expected to pass a Living Wage Ordinance. The legislation would require any business receiving city subsidies to pay their employees at least $12.09 an hour. Supporters are also trying to pass a similar measure in St. Paul.Mayoral candidate Chris Coleman says he would support the St. Paul ordinance.Mayor Randy Kelly and the business community are less enthusiastic.

St. Paul, Minn. — "Living Wages Yes!" is a coalition of labor, faith, and community groups behind ordinances in Minneapolis and St. Paul. Their recommendation sets a living wage at $12.09 per hour, or about $25,000 per year.

Coalition member Ryan Greenwood of Progressive Minnesota says that's the level at which the federal government says a family of four is no longer eligible for foodstamps.

"Essentially we're saying if you're working on a job funded by the city, you ought to have enough money to feed your family and enough money to afford at least affordable housing that the city is also building," says Greenwood.

The Minneapolis ordinance would apply to businesses with contracts or subsidies from the city worth at least $100,000.

Ordinance requirements include paying part-time and seasonal workers a living wage of $12.09 per hour. Businesses that provide health insurance would be held to a lower wage of $10.24 per hour.

The ordinance allows for a few exemptions including temporary internship positions and businesses that create affordable housing. Small businesses with 20 or fewer employees are also exempt.

Greenwood says it's a good, inclusive ordinance. It's had success in Minneapolis, and he'd like to see it passed in St. Paul.

"We think the best standard is a uniform standard that's metro-wide," he says. "A community standard on how public dollars are used when they're handed out to these private contractors or subsidy recipients."

The idea that the Minneapolis ordinance could play out in St. Paul makes Larry Dowell nervous.

"Our position has historically been that we do not support a mandated, artificial wage and price controls either top-end controls or bottom-end controls," he says.

Dowell is President of the St. Paul Area Chamber of Commerce. He says a better way to increase wealth for city residents is through economic development and job creation.

Dowell objects to part-time workers being paid the same wage as those working full-time. He says he worries that businesses will get fed up with the wage requirements in St. Paul and take their business elsewhere.

Dowell blames the coalition for not including Chamber ideas in the ordinance.

"It's not a very big tent proposal at this point," Dowell says. "We think policy makers will want to understand the full ramifications before they vote on something like this. Quite frankly, I would expect that they would want to. And if they don't, that's frightening."

St. Paul currently has a living wage resolution that says businesses with city contracts should pay their employees $10.24 per hour. But making it into an ordinance would increase the wage amount and give it the force of law with penalties for non-complying businesses.

Mayor Randy Kelly says he supports the current resolution, but he says he's skeptical about the Coalition's proposal.

"I think you have to strike a balance," he says. "Make sure you have a good living wage ordinance, but you also want to make sure you don't discourage future development and growth in your city."

When the coalition was initially crafting the resolution last summer, Kelly insisted part-time workers be removed. The Coalition did not agree to that restriction, so they pulled the draft and are waiting to see what happens after the election before introducing it at the City Council.

Challenger Chris Coleman has been endorsed by Progressive Minnesota, a member of the Living Wage Yes! coalition. Coleman says he supports the coalition's ordinance.

"We as a city need to make strategic decisions about the kind of investments we're going to make," he says. "The kind of investments that provide the best jobs, that provide a living wage for our citizens. I just think it's responsible spending, responsible investment on the part of the citizens and the government of the city of St. Paul."

The success of the Living Wage Yes! ordinance in St. Paul appears to be hanging on the outcome of Tuesday's mayoral election.

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