DFL to push Senate to hike Minnesota's minimum wage

Traditional DFL allies, House DFLers and the governor target Senate Democrats.

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Bethany Winkels of Working America walked the streets of northeast Minneapolis last month, knocking on doors seeking ­support for efforts to get Minnesota legislators to vote for a higher minimum wage.

Photo: Glen Stubbe, Star Tribune

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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.

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  • Chad Pichler and Bethany Winkels of Working America checked their address lists while knocking on doors in northeast Minneapolis last month seeking support for a higher state minimum wage.

  • Change the wage?

    change the wage?

    Minnesota’s minimum wage

    • $6.15 per hour (large employers, annual receipts $625,000 or more)

    • $5.25 per hour (small employers, annual receipts less than $625,000)

    • $4.90 per hour (training wage)

    Toeing the line

    93,000 Minnesotans earn at or below the federal minimum wage of $7.25 per hour.

    States lower than federal minimum

    Minnesota, Wyoming, Arkansas and Georgia

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