© 2024 Kansas City Public Radio
NPR in Kansas City
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

What In The World Is Going On With Kansas City's Minimum Wage Ordinance?

Cody Newill
Activists with Missouri Jobs with Justice marched through Westport in support of Kansas City's minimum wage ordinance in July. The minimum wage was supposed to be raised to $13 an hour by 2020, but the situation has become much more complicated.

The Kansas City Council passed an ordinance this summer that would've raised the city’s minimum wage to $13 an hour by 2020. But competing petitions and state laws have complicated the issue, and threatened the raise for Kansas City workers. 

'A glorious day for workers'

Activists and low-wage workers with activist group Stand Up KC protested for higher wages for years before the council's vote. For Subway worker Dana Whitman, who has struggled to pay rent on the wages she earns, that day earlier this summer was a day of joy and relief. 

"It's a glorious day for workers everywhere that we are finally going to get some kind of raise to help us raise our kids," Whitman said. "I'm just happy right now, it's amazing that we won $13 an hour."

Originally, activists with the Southern Christian Leadership Conference of Greater Kansas City gathered signatures for a vote on a $15 an hour wage by 2020. But the city council took it upon itself to find a middle ground between what activists wanted and what business groups said would ruin their profit margins.

And they faced a tight deadline.

The Missouri Legislature passed a bill called House Bill 722 last session that forbid cities from raising the minimum wage, but not if they had an ordinance on the books before Aug. 28.

At the time, Mayor Sly James said that the ordinance was one of the toughest the council had ever dealt with.

"We're trying to do it in a short period of time, and not always having every fact that we need to get there," James said. "All I know is that the opponents are going to be upset with something and the proponents are going to be upset with something."

Credit Cody Newill / KCUR
The Kansas City Council took up the minimum wage issue after an initiative petition seeking a $15 an hour wage by 2020 was declined. Since then, the petition has been approved for a vote for Nov. 3.

RELATED: A Timeline Straightening Out Kansas City's Confusing Minimum Wage Debate

Complications abound

In response to the council's minimum wage ordinance, a coalition of business groups called Missourians for Fair Wages started gathering their own signatures for a referendum that would put the ordinance before a vote.

It was a strategic move that blocked the city’s ordinance from going into effect, causing them to miss the Aug. 28 deadline that was so important in the first place.

David Jackson, chair of Missourians for Fair Wages, says they acted because businesses can’t afford to pay workers more right now.

"The harsh reality is that, whenever you put obstacles in front of businesses to hire people, you ultimately have fewer businesses and they have to make tough decisions," Jackson said. "We don't have enough jobs and employers in Missouri in the first place."

Around the same time the referendum was submitted, the petitioners who kicked this whole issue off decided to move ahead with their $15 an hour petition. Since the city council didn’t act on the verified initiative within 60 days, the petitioners had the authority to demand a Nov. 3 vote.

Rev. Vernon Howard, president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference of Greater Kansas City is one of the key players behind the petition. He says his group moved ahead with the initiative because raising wages is an issue of morality.

"It is the right thing for us to be concerned about poor, working people and about their children being healthy, strong and vibrant," Howard said. "But if poor people and those at the bottom of society lose while profits and wealth takes place at the top, then we believe that our culture is losing."

To complicate matters further, Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon vetoed HB 722. The Legislature could override that in its special veto session starting Sept. 16. If that happens, the city stands to lose $500,000 to pay for the Nov. 3 vote, which would be illegal under HB 722.

Credit Cody Newill / KCUR
Activists, low-wage workers and business representatives filled the council chamber during the vote on July 16.

That puts the city in a difficult spot in terms of timing. Normally, the city would have to get a court order to dismantle an election, but there just isn’t enough time to do that. So City Attorney Bill Geary added an escape clause to the initiative petition.

It could allow the city to scrap the vote if 722 is overridden, but Geary admitted to the council that it might not even be legal.

"But there’s only one way to find out," Geary said. "And this is the most prudent way I can think of to put us into a position to be able to respond to events we have no control over."

And if the Legislature doesn’t override the veto? Then the issue falls back on previous state laws, which some say still ban local wage ordinances, but some say don’t. If that ends up happening, long court battles between the state and the city are likely. 

The future of the minimum wage debate

But supporters of a minimum wage raise still have options on the state level. Missouri Secretary of State Jason Kander has approved three ballot initiatives from advocacy group Missouri Jobs with Justice to start gathering signatures.

All three seek to kick the state’s minimum wage up to $9 an hour immediately, and then stair step up to different levels year after year. Missouri Jobs with Justice Director Lara Granich says she’s confident that Missourians of all political stripes would vote "yes" for a statewide wage hike.

"The last minimum wage ballot initiative had 76 percent of voters in favor of a wage increase," Granich said. "This is an issue that has strong support among Republican voters, Independent voters and Democratic voters alike."

Cody Newill is part of KCUR's audience development team. Follow him on Twitter @CodyNewill or email him at cody@kcur.org.
KCUR serves the Kansas City region with breaking news and award-winning podcasts.
Your donation helps keep nonprofit journalism free and available for everyone.