After more than three months of furious debate, the Kansas City Council voted 12-1 Thursday for a minimum wage increase that calls for $13 per hour by 2020.
It’s not as high as the $15 per hour that will be required in a few years in Seattle, San Francisco and some other cities, but the new law would place Kansas City among a wave of cities instituting big pay raises for the working poor.
And it means Kansas City could soon have the highest minimum wage in Missouri — although it won’t be as high as a group of grass-roots petitioners had sought, and it’s far higher than business advocates said they could accept.
The increases come gradually, with the first bump Aug. 24. In Kansas City, the minimum wage would rise from the state-set minimum of $7.65 per hour to $8.50 per hour.
Although Thursday marked a pivotal council vote, it’s likely not the last word on this topic. Businesses have threatened to go to court soon to fight the wage raise, while petitioners have said they may still seek a ballot measure this year to implement a $15 per hour wage by 2020.
Despite the ongoing uncertainty and acrimony, Kansas City Council members said they felt their approach was a good compromise and the right thing to do.
“I think we should be part of what is a growing national effort, a grassroots effort” for social justice and economic equity, Councilman John Sharp said. “I think we have done something we can all be proud of.”
Dozens of low-wage workers who had gathered at City Hall erupted in cheers after the vote. Fast-food worker Terrance Wise, 36, a spokesman for the low-wage advocacy group Stand Up KC, said $13 was a step in the right direction, although his group will still push for $15 per hour by 2020.
Councilman Ed Ford was the lone dissenter, saying the wage boost was too much, too fast and will cost Kansas City jobs and businesses that will locate in neighboring cities with lower minimum wage requirements.
Ford warned against giving low-wage workers “false hope” because the city is sure to be sued by business interests that oppose the change, and the new city law may well never take effect.
Bud Nicol, executive director of the Hotel and Lodging Association of Greater Kansas City, who has been involved in discussions for weeks with city officials over the minimum wage, said he was deeply disappointed by the vote.
“Being this aggressive, this drastic, you’ll see some companies move or ... they will choose not to locate in Kansas City,” Nicol warned.
He said any lawsuit will likely come from state restaurant and other business associations that believe the city has no authority to go above the state-set minimum wage of $7.65 per hour.
Mayor Sly James acknowledged the new law, rushed through without full research and data, is fraught with pitfalls and problems.
“This is a blunt instrument that’s being put together on the fly,” James said of the plan that was still being hashed out in conversations with the petitioners before Thursday evening’s vote.
“We have constituents on both sides and all sides of this issue,” James said, adding that he’s definitely sympathetic to hard-working people scratching for poverty wages, and also toward small businesses with very tight profit margins.
The original push for a higher minimum wage came several months ago from a grassroots-led petition initiative. It sought to raise the wage from $7.65 per hour to $10 per hour by Sept. 1 and gradually to $15 per hour by 2020.
But that generated fierce opposition from restaurants, hotel, retail and business owners. Another version with much more modest raises and a longer time frame emerged last week but was changed again late Thursday.
Elements of the final version:
• The wage would increase to $8.50 per hour on Aug. 24, to $9.82 per hour by Jan. 7, 2017, then to $10.96 by 2018 and $11.98 by 2019 until it reaches $13 per hour on Jan. 1, 2020. It would then rise or fall each year after that based on the cost of living.
• The wage would apply to all employers with more than 15 employees, and to all employees over age 17. James said he didn’t want the higher minimum wage to deter employers from hiring teenagers for their first jobs.
“They will be the first to suffer,” James predicted about the risk of youth unemployment if the higher entry-level wage applied to all ages.
But Ford worried that because the higher wage requirement applies to 18-year-olds, it will endanger summer job prospects for many high school seniors.
• A violation could result in $1,000 per person per day, although city officials acknowledged that enforcing this new minimum wage may be one of the most daunting challenges. A hearing officer would conduct a hearing before submitting complaints to the city prosecutor.
City Manager Troy Schulte estimated it would cost Kansas City $250,000 in the first year of enforcement and even more money in future years because the city would need to hire additional investigators and educate employers and employees about the new mandate.
Phillip Yelder, director of the city’s human relations department, said he has consulted with Seattle, San Francisco and Washington, D.C., about implementing higher minimum wages, and learned that enforcement is a big expense.
“Right now, I do not have the resources to do that,” Yelder told the council.
In a memo, Yelder calculated he would need 90 to 120 days to gear up to enforce the new law, which would involve hiring five or more investigators and buying three cars. He said his department would also have to run an aggressive marketing campaign, including in Spanish and Asian languages, and it might take a year to 18 months to fully mobilize.
James acknowledged the bureaucratic headache, saying, “We are stuck with no enforcement mechanism at this point in time.”
Although the council debate may be over for now, the community debate is likely to continue on the streets, in the courtroom and perhaps at the ballot box.
After Thursday’s vote, the Rev. Vernon Howard, president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference of Greater Kansas City, who helped lead the petition drive, suggested the crusade by faith-based and social justice groups for $15 per hour in Kansas City isn’t over.
While Howard thanked the council for trying to address the plight of the working poor, he said $13 per hour by 2020 still isn’t enough.
“We believe we are just and right to do everything within our power,” Howard said, “to lift poor people to a living wage, including exercising the right of the ballot if necessary.”