It’s been almost four months since Wanda Rogers got a raise.
Even so, Rogers, 46, a mother of four, is still struggling to pay her rent and worries she might be evicted from her home in the Wells-Goodfellow neighborhood. On top of that, she fears her raise — to $10 an hour from the state minimum of $7.70 — is going away.
“If it goes back down, then I’m really gonna be in the hole,” said Rogers, who was part of a small protest earlier this month outside the McDonald’s restaurant at 1400 Hampton Avenue, where she works. “It put an extra $200 on my check.”
She and her fellow protesters have been pushing employers to keep the higher $10 minimum, but many of the estimated 30,000-plus workers in the city who saw bigger checks for several months could soon see their pay cut.
That’s because on Monday, employers in the city of St. Louis will no longer be bound by the local ordinance that mandated a minimum wage of $10 an hour in the city. A state law passed on the final day of the 2017 legislative session takes effect Monday, overriding the St. Louis ordinance and lowering the floor to $7.70 an hour.
While local minimum wage ordinances have become a popular issue among Democratic politicians in many of the country’s big cities, St. Louis’ situation is somewhat unique.
It’s not that a Republican-leaning state legislature blocked a local law — that has happened in places such as Cleveland and Birmingham, Ala. What’s different in St. Louis is that the local ordinance will have been in effect for months before a state pre-emption law kicks in.
Now workers are in limbo and employers face the uncomfortable choice of keeping a higher payroll or cutting employee wages back to a lower minimum. Some do plan to reduce wages, but many are planning to keep the raise for the time being, said Brad Kafka, an attorney who heads Polsinelli’s labor and employment practice.
“It’s difficult for an employer to tell employees that now we’re going to cut your wages by $2.30 an hour,” he said. “I think a lot of employers are struggling with it.”
It’s unclear how many businesses will actually reduce wages. Workers such as Rogers say their managers aren’t saying much about whether they will maintain the raises. A spokesman for area McDonald’s franchisees, often the target of protests organized by the Fight for $15 group that has long pushed for higher wages, did not return requests for comment.
But at least some business owners say they won’t cut employee wages when the state law takes effect.
“People would be angry and then they wouldn’t do a good job and they’d be resentful,” said Harman Moseley, whose STL Cinemas operates four local theaters, including the Chase Park Plaza, Moolah Theatre and MX Movies.
In order to keep all his employees equal, Moseley said, he already decided to pay $10 an hour to workers at his theater in the Galleria, which is in Richmond Heights and not subject to the city ordinance.
The higher minimum pushed up wages for about 70 of his 80-or-so workers, he estimated. Managers who were making more than the $10 minimum then wanted their own raises. Annual payroll, he said, will be at least $100,000 more, plus the additional payroll taxes it triggers.
It’s not an easy time to be in the theater business, but Moseley is hoping keeping the higher pay translates into happier workers and thus more satisfied customers. He said STL Cinemas would just have to be more vigilant about staffing at the right level and sending people home when movies don’t draw the expected crowds.
“This is not going to put us out of business,” Moseley said. “We might not be quite as profitable as we would have been, but we feel like we’re doing the right thing.”
State steps in
Monday’s state law comes two years to the day that then-Mayor Francis Slay signed the St. Louis ordinance. Court challenges from business interests delayed the ordinance’s effective date until the Missouri Supreme Court ruled in February that the law could take effect, which it did in May.
Legislators in Jefferson City moved to block the St. Louis ordinance, but Democratic delay tactics and Republican lawmakers’ bickering with Gov. Eric Greitens, also a Republican, ultimately pushed action to the final hours of the legislative session. Greitens opted to let the bill take effect without his signature.
Now, efforts have turned to a local “Save the Raise” campaign urging St. Louis businesses to maintain the $10 minimum once the new state law takes effect. Dozens of mostly small, local restaurants and shops have signed on.
Other governments are looking at higher minimum wages, too. In a symbolic gesture in Kansas City, 69 percent of voters voted Aug. 8 for a higher minimum wage despite knowing the state law had already blocked local minimum wage increases. In Illinois, lawmakers passed in June a bill that would increase the state’s minimum wage of $8.25 to $15 an hour by 2022. Illinois Gov. Bruce Rauner on Friday vetoed the bill; at least one sponsor said he will seek an override of the veto.