Fresh off a victory in Minneapolis last year, advocates for a $15 minimum wage in St. Paul crowded into council chambers Wednesday morning, saying the time for studying the issue is over.
But St. Paul City Council members are pumping the brakes, saying they need to answer basic questions about how a wage increase would affect workers and businesses before making any decisions.
"We do need to pause and take the time to ask those questions in the context of St. Paul," said Council President Amy Brendmoen.
About 50 people attended the first of what will likely be many meetings on the minimum wage issue Wednesday, as council members heard a report on potential effects of a wage hike from the nonpartisan Citizens League.
Many attendees were connected to the advocacy group 15 Now. They wore red T-shirts emblazoned with "Raise the minimum wage because the rent won't wait."
According to a Metropolitan Council study cited in the Citizens League report, more than 40 percent of St. Paul residents live in poverty — more than any other metro-area city.
Of the more than 180,000 people employed in St. Paul, more than 30,000 work in industries with an average full-time weekly wage of less than $800, according to Department of Employment and Economic Development data cited in the report.
The City Council first floated the idea of a citywide minimum wage about a year ago. Beginning in late November and ending early this month, the group solicited comments from employers, workers and advocates. In total, 227 people participated in in-person conversations and 100 responses were e-mailed or submitted online.
The report produced more questions than answers. Advocates for low-wage workers asked whether the wage increase would affect public assistance benefits. Health care providers wondered how to accommodate a $15 minimum wage when the Medicaid reimbursement rate they rely on pays $17. Businesses wanted to know how the city will define small businesses vs. large ones.
According to the report, Citizens League staff did not mention a $15 minimum wage specifically, but many respondents assumed that would be the figure.
Mayor Melvin Carter pledged in his Jan. 2 inaugural address to work toward a citywide $15 minimum wage in 2018. If the council approves it, St. Paul will follow in the footsteps of cities across the country, from Minneapolis to Seattle to Washington, D.C.
The St. Paul Foundation commissioned the Citizens League report last year. The Citizens League may conduct additional research this year to answer the questions in the initial report and to get feedback from people the first report didn't include — particularly immigrant business owners, said Executive Director Pahoua Yang Hoffman.
After the meeting, $15 minimum wage supporters poured out of the council chambers and passed around a microphone to share responses to the report.
"We don't need to wait for more research and data reports to explain what we all know: that St. Paul workers need 15 now," said Roz Barnes of 15 Now.
Daniel Maddox, a personal care attendant who works in St. Paul, added, "We're putting the city of St. Paul on notice."