As Cities Raise Minimum Wages, Many States Are Rolling Them Back
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State governments are increasingly facing off with city halls over what the minimum wage should be. Over the past several years, dozens of city and county governments have raised their base wages to levels far above the federal minimum wage of $7.25. Some state legislatures are saying, not so fast. They've passed laws limiting what the cities can do. NPR's Yuki Noguchi reports.
YUKI NOGUCHI, BYLINE: The last time the federal minimum wage was raised was in 2009. Brooks Rainwater, a senior executive at the National League of Cities, says the municipal measures had popular backing.
BROOKS RAINWATER: Seeing as we haven't had a raise in the minimum wage at the federal level, people within cities where the cost of living oftentimes can be higher needed a raise. And city leaders have responded to that.
NOGUCHI: Business groups, meanwhile, argue complying with disparate city laws is too complex, and that the additional costs would force them to curtail hiring, which in turn hurts workers. State legislatures where more conservative rural interests tend to wield a lot of power responded, and now 27 states have passed laws pre-empting local laws and setting statewide limits on minimum wages. Missouri's new law takes effect next month, rolling back a $10 an hour minimum wage in the city of St. Louis to the statewide rate of $7.70. Similar rollbacks occurred this spring in four counties in Iowa that had voted to increase their wages. Rainwater says this trend is undermining local governance.
RAINWATER: There used to be a shared value around this concept of local control. You know, whether a conservative or a liberal, the idea that the representative closest to the people would be able to decide many of these fundamental questions.
NOGUCHI: He says attorneys representing the cities face an uphill battle.
RAINWATER: A big challenge here is cities aren't enumerated within the constitutional powers. And so they are in effect creations of the state.
NOGUCHI: Pat White is president of the central labor council for the AFL-CIO in St. Louis. He says minimum wage workers will lose income when the law takes effect August 28, but so will workers higher up on the wage scale who were hoping to see corresponding increases as well. White calls state lawmakers' moves hypocritical given how they chafe against federal control.
PAT WHITE: They're always complaining about how the federal government is dipping into what they want to do here in the state, but they're doing the exact same thing with municipalities here from the state level.
NOGUCHI: White says it raises questions for him about the point of city government.
WHITE: Why have them even run for office if they're not allowed to govern their own area?
NOGUCHI: The reason, says Mike Aitken, director of government affairs for the Society for Human Resource Management, is that having a patchwork of laws is highly impractical.
MIKE AITKEN: It becomes an administrative headache for sophisticated employers, let alone for a lot of your smaller employers that may be operating within one state.
NOGUCHI: Aitken says there are other ordinances around paid and sick leave that make it very difficult for a trucking company, for example, whose employees may operate in many jurisdictions. He argues states are operating well within their rights.
AITKEN: Cities are allowed to set their own minimum wage, but so are states then allowed to pre-empt them.
NOGUCHI: Cynthia Sanders now commutes into St. Louis city for her janitorial job after moving further out because the cost of living was too high. She says when the Missouri state law takes effect, her wages will fall and she'll have to cut back again.
CYNTHIA SANDERS: I'm just scared for everybody 'cause it's a sad, sad situation. And I don't understand how it's legal.
NOGUCHI: Sanders says the issue is making a political crusader of her.
SANDERS: We're mad enough to really, really fight now.
NOGUCHI: As soon as she hangs up with me, she says, she's calling a long list of legislators. Yuki Noguchi, NPR News, Washington.
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