Minneapolis officials are looking at raising the city's minimum wage to $15 an hour, a move that would place the city's base wage among the highest in the nation.
"We want to ensure we're able to provide workers a better living wage to ensure we're able to provide a better, more sustainable economic system for the people who live in our city," said Council Member Alondra Cano, who has been meeting for months with state legislators, federal officials and local labor groups to boost workers' pay.
The dramatic jump in the city's base wage would set Minneapolis apart from neighboring communities and thrust the state into a larger national debate about workers' wages. Seattle officials this summer overcame intense opposition from business leaders to lift its minimum wage to $15 an hour, to be phased in over several years.
Local business leaders are already expressing grave concerns about the possibility of the higher wage, saying some businesses could lay off workers or automate in ways that use less workers if labor costs become too high. The layoffs would significantly affect those on the lowest end of the wage scale, they say, particularly young workers struggling to land those crucial first jobs.
"I think for Minneapolis to travel alone is fraught with risk," said Dan McElroy, the head of Hospitality Minnesota, a restaurant, lodging and resort association.
McElroy said he worries about an increase in the youth unemployment rate because of companies unwilling to pay higher wages to younger workers.
The new effort comes six weeks after the statewide minimum wage went up from $7.25 to $8 an hour — on its way to $9.50 in 2016.Cano is taking a measured approach. She said that process would begin with an update to the city's rules for how it pays its contractors, then be expanded to include a higher minimum wage for all people working in Minneapolis, similar to Seattle's recent minimum wage boost.
The issue has already been simmering locally for at least a year.
Cano and others expressed support for a higher Minneapolis minimum wage during last year's council campaign, but said at the time she was not sure if the city had the legal authority to make such a move.
Local and state officials are still researching the feasibility of a city increase, and Minneapolis City Attorney Susan Segal said she is not yet ready to discuss her findings.
Cano, however, said she believes the city could set its minimum wage above the state level, with council approval.
Mayor Betsy Hodges is not immediately weighing in on the proposal. She said in a statement that she supported the statewide increase and wants the council to stay in close contact with advocates for a higher city wage."Before embarking on a process to raise a municipal minimum wage, I appreciate that council members are asking questions about our legal path forward and the impact on our city, given our particular economic and business mix," she said.
A vote is not likely to happen this year. Cano said she would like to get a clearer picture of the jobs it affects and have the measure better specify which employers are required to follow it. Getting that done could take up to nine months, she said.
Council Member Jacob Frey is interested in exploring the idea. He recently joined fast-food workers participating in a strike — and advocating for a $15 an hour wage — in northeast Minneapolis. Frey said he's still studying the issue to figure out the city's best approach.Council President Barb Johnson is more skeptical. "I have great concern for people that are working at these very low wages … but it's a challenge also to look at a big, huge wage jump that would perhaps put Minneapolis at a competitive disadvantage," she said.
Mike Hickey, director of the Minnesota chapter of the National Federation of Independent Businesses, said Minneapolis would risk becoming a less attractive place to do business. "I can't believe they're even considering this, in light of what a dramatic increase we passed at the Legislature," he said.Small Business Minnesota spokeswoman Audrey Britton said her group supports a strong minimum wage but is concerned about officials trying to do too much, too quickly.
"We're generally in favor of fair wages, but our concern was and continues to be that you can't make up for 10 years of inaction in one or two years' time," she said.
But Anthony Newby, head of Neighborhoods Organizing for Change, said the city's lowest-paid workers need changes now. His group is organizing workers, many of them who work at fast-food restaurants, and doing its own research about how a wage increase could benefit the city.
"There's always going to be folks that say low wage workers deserve the pay they get," he said, "but it's becoming a minority of people that says people are responsible for their own condition."
It is far from certain the Minnesota Legislature would back a citywide increase if it needed state approval.Rep. Ryan Winkler, DFL-Golden Valley, who led the House effort to pass the state minimum wage increase, warned that legislators might not want to dive into another divisive debate over the wage issue.
"I think the Legislature may feel like they addressed this issue last year and may be involved in moving on to issues like earned sick leave or affordable child care or paid family leave," he said.