For most of her 13 years working the grill and cash register at McDonald’s, Bettie Douglas earned just over $7 an hour. Then in 2017, the St. Louis resident’s hourly pay rose to $10 after the city increased its minimum wage.
But the Missouri legislature soon invalidated the local wage ordinance following opposition from business groups, despite the state Supreme Court having already upheld the increase. Pay for tens of thousands of low-wage workers in St. Louis reverted to the state’s then-minimum of $7.70 an hour.
Missouri is among 25 states that expressly block local municipalities from adopting their own minimum-wage laws. State legislatures in Alabama, Florida, Iowa, Kentucky and Wisconsin have also invalidated local wage increases, costing nearly 350,000 workers a total of $1.5 billion per year, according to a study by the National Employment Law Project that quantifies for the first time the economic impact of prohibiting local wage increases.
State laws preempting or nullifying higher local wages perpetuate economic inequality in American cities, hurting women and minority workers who are disproportionately employed in low-wage jobs, researchers say. More than 60 percent of affected workers affected in St. Louis, Birmingham and Miami Beach are people of color, according to the study.
“Missouri was one of the most egregious examples of an overwhelmingly white legislature undoing the will of local communities,” said Laura Huizar, a senior staff attorney for NELP and co-author of the report. “Preemption has been used as a tool to undermine higher wages, protect corporate profits, and cancel the voices of blacks and Latinos.”
In addition to invalidating the local pay increases in St. Louis and Kansas City, the Missouri law blocked the introduction of new employment benefit requirements such as paid sick leave and health, disability and retirement benefits. The St. Louis minimum wage had been scheduled to rise to $11 an hour by 2018. Kansas City’s was supposed to go up to $13 by 2020.
On average, workers in the 12 municipalities where wage increases were overturned by state legislatures are losing almost $4,100 individually per year, the study found. Between 20 and 71 percent of the affected workers in these cities and counties live below the federal poverty line.
Despite the strong economy and historically low unemployment rates, real wages for the majority of workers have flatlined over the past decade. Since the “Fight for $15” minimum-wage movement began in 2012, more than 40 cities and counties have passed laws raising the local wage floor — leading to a corporate-fueled backlash in many legislatures, Huizar said. Minimum-wage increases in 20 municipalities, including the District of Columbia and two states, went into effect July 1.
Douglas, the McDonald’s worker in St. Louis, is the sole breadwinner in her family. At 61, she’s supporting her eldest son, who is recovering from a brain tumor; her youngest son, who has autism; and her brother, who is disabled. Each weekday morning, she catches two buses and a train to work because she cannot afford a car.
“Anybody who gets up and goes to work every day should be able to earn a living wage to take care of their families and pay their bills,” said Douglas, who began working at age 12 in her parents’ janitorial business. “I’m not asking for a handout. I’m saying just give me my due.”
Douglas said her boss at the fast-food restaurant allowed her to keep her $10 hourly wage as a recognition of her long service, but many of her colleagues lost their raises.
Still, she said she has no health insurance, no paid vacations or sick leave, and no retirement benefits. She said she hasn’t been to a doctor in the 18 years since she gave birth to her youngest son.
Missouri voters last fall approved a ballot measure to raise the state minimum wage from $8.60 to $12 an hour by 2023. Douglas says she’s fighting for $15, which still falls short of the $16.32 hourly wage required for a single adult in St. Louis to meet his or her basic needs — let alone the $18.99 required for a family of four.
“We are all just one paycheck away from being homeless,” Douglas said. “No one in America should live like that.”