A push to raise wages for the lowest-paid workers is gaining momentum across the country, with more than a dozen states raising their minimums and President Obama calling for an increase in the federal minimum to $9 an hour.
But in Minnesota, where Democrats control every lever of state government, the push has become a struggle that may yet stall.
Minnesota has one of the lowest state minimum wages in the country. Most employers must pay the higher federal minimum of $7.25, but certain employers are able to take advantage of the state minimum, paying their workers as little as $6.15 an hour.
A move by some lawmakers in 2013 to increase the minimum fizzled at the last minute, despite support from DFL Gov. Mark Dayton. When legislators return to St. Paul next month for the 2014 legislative session, House DFLers will seek a minimum wage of $9.50 an hour. That would give Minnesota one of the highest minimums in the country.
Dayton calls the wage hike one of his top priorities for the year, and has said the state’s current minimum wage is “ridiculously low.”
That would seem to make a wage increase all but certain, but the proposal is getting a cool reception in the DFL-controlled Senate, where last year’s deal ran aground.
“We could run a minimum wage bill out the first day and just slam it home. But it might create a disaster for the rest of the session,” said Senate Majority Leader Tom Bakk, DFL-Cook. Pass the bill the wrong way, he said, and businesses could suffer, youth unemployment could skyrocket and jobs could be at risk.
“I think there is a very legitimate conversation [on minimum wage] that I don’t think has been fleshed out,” said Bakk, a former union official and labor negotiator.
Last year, the Senate voted to boost the minimum wage, but only to $7.75 an hour — 50 cents more than the existing federal minimum. Bakk said the Senate might be willing to go higher this year, but “I just think we’ve got to figure out how we get there.”
But that’s not the only consideration.
Since the House and governor have made clear that they want a wage hike, getting the Senate to come along puts Bakk in a potentially powerful position.
‘Everything is linked’
Bakk wants to link passage of a minimum wage hike to higher pay for nursing home workers.
“They need better wages. It’s the one area where I definitely have some interest in putting some additional money … to mitigate the impact of this,” he said.
If more state cash for nursing home and other care providers fails to materialize, Bakk said he would opt for a very long phase-in of any minimum-wage increase. He said that while the two changes — more cash for nursing homes and raising the minimum wage — do not need to pass at the same time, he wants them both addressed this year.
“Around here, everything is linked,” the deep-voiced Senate leader said from his corner Capitol office.
Dayton has said he is open to giving long-term care providers a pay raise.
Since last spring, when the legislative session ended in defeat for their proposal, advocates have been turning up the pressure.
“Raise the Wage” campaigns have spread across the state, with activists writing letters, dialing phones and knocking on doors. A coalition of wage-hike supporters that includes unions, liberal groups and religious organizations has spent about $100,000 to target Democrats and say they are prepared to spend at least $150,000 more.
Their goal is clear: They want to get a $9.50-an-hour minimum wage bill on the governor’s desk in the first few weeks of the session, which opens Feb. 25.
Hitting the streets
On a frigid day in late December, Bethany Winkles set off to northeast Minneapolis to make that pitch door-to-door, armed with an iPad, notebook paper, layers upon layers of clothing and seemingly endless enthusiasm.
A field director for Working America, a union-affiliated organization, Winkles was on an unusual quest: Get residents of this largely working-class, Minneapolis neighborhood to write letters to Bakk, an Iron Ranger who lives in Cook, population 574.
Despite the setting sun and the darkened houses, Winkles hit gold again and again.
“I support raising the minimum wage to $9.50 because people require to be supported and valued for the hard work they do,” said one of the more than 4,000 letters that Working America canvassers have collected.
The door-to-door letter campaign, organized by traditional DFL allies and targeting the DFL senators, has not yet achieved its goal.
Rep. Ryan Winkler, DFL-Golden Valley, is the sponsor of the $9.50-an-hour bill that passed the House last year. He said advocates are getting closer, but six weeks before lawmakers return to St. Paul there is no guarantee of victory in the Senate.
“I would not say that we have the votes,” Winkler said.
Fueling opposition to an increase are business interests, which have done their own push.
Grocers have spent months inviting local lawmakers into their stores and talking about the harm they see in a blanket minimum wage hike, said Jamie Pfuhl, president of the Minnesota Grocers Association. She said she believes lawmakers will raise the minimum this year but said the details matter. The House bill, she said, would hamper her members considerably.
Dan McElroy, a former Republican House member and state finance commissioner who now leads Hospitality Minnesota, said his members worry about the wage impact on tipped employees and border cities, if the Minnesota wage rises above its neighbors.
“It isn’t a simple issue,” McElroy said.
Rachel E. Stassen-Berger Twitter: @RachelSB