St. Paul leaders say they're still deciding the details of a proposed citywide minimum wage, but one big detail appears to be settled: St. Paul will have a $15 minimum wage.
The momentum comes from Mayor Melvin Carter, who said at a recent community listening session on the minimum wage that "Fifteen is just the headline" and the specifics still need to be figured out.
At the same time, activist groups are organizing rallies and flooding city meetings to push for a $15 minimum wage without exemptions.
"Everybody is pretty sure that $15 is going to pass," said Fernando Nuñez, communications director for Centro de Trabajadores Unidos en la Lucha, one of the groups pushing for a wage hike in St. Paul.
The nonpartisan Citizens League, which the St. Paul Foundation brought on to study the potential effects of a citywide minimum wage, has convened a committee to discuss what the minimum wage should be, if any exemptions should be made, how tipped workers will be affected and how the increase should be phased in. They're expected to make recommendations to the city by the end of the summer.
The committee could recommend an hourly wage other than $15, but it's unlikely, said B Kyle, committee co-chair and president and CEO of the St. Paul Area Chamber of Commerce.
Meanwhile, listening sessions this summer will give members of the public an opportunity to learn about the minimum wage and share their opinions. Opponents of a municipal minimum wage say at this point they don't expect public input to make much of a difference.
"The mayor has come out and said we're going to $15, period," said Cam Winton, director of labor management policy for the Minnesota Chamber of Commerce, which has fought the Minneapolis wage ordinance. "Why would anyone think there's a genuine conversation to have when leadership has already said we're going to $15?"
If the City Council passes a minimum wage ordinance this year, St. Paul will join Minneapolis and cities across the country, including San Francisco, Seattle and New York, that have done the same.
The "Fight for 15" movement dates to 2012, when community organizers based in Brooklyn, N.Y., spearheaded a fast food workers' strike to demand higher wages.
Jonathan Westin, executive director at New York Communities for Change and a St. Paul native, said the idea of a $15 minimum wage came out of a series of meetings with workers. It turned into a "rallying cry," he said.
"People kind of landed on $15 because that's the bare minimum they would need to get by — something like $10 just wouldn't even cut it," Westin said.
As Fight for 15 spread to other cities, the strategy of rallying outside City Halls and fast food restaurants spread, too.
"We're not just appealing to a lobbying strategy to try and ask a political official to do something," said Ginger Jentzen, who was a key player in the 15Now effort in Minneapolis and is now organizing in St. Paul. "We're actually demanding it through protests and actions and organizing in a way that makes it impossible for them to turn anywhere but toward the movement."
On Wednesday afternoon, about 50 women from several states marched to the Minnesota Restaurant Association offices in St. Paul to demonstrate against a possible exemption for tipped workers in the minimum wage policy. They carried a white banner with "Working women demand dignity" painted in red, and held signs reading "One Fair Wage Minnesota" and "No tip penalty."
"I'm so thankful that you guys are out here today, because this is what it takes," Shirley Henderson, a small-business owner from Seattle, told the group through a megaphone.
Cities that have passed a $15 minimum wage are phasing in the increase over time and indexing for inflation. In Minneapolis, all workers will reach a $15 hourly wage — plus any increases due to inflation — by July 1, 2024.
Though the Twin Cities branch of the Fight for 15 movement has remained steadfast in its push for citywide minimum wages, organizers and workers acknowledge that even $15 an hour is tough to live on.
A recent report from the National Low Income Housing Coalition found that a worker would have to earn $18.82 an hour to afford a two-bedroom rental in Minnesota.
Data from the Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development show that in Ramsey County, where St. Paul accounts for most of the population, a single person without children would need to earn more than $16 an hour to cover the cost of living.
Maria Vasquez lives in St. Paul and works both as a personal care assistant and at a Target store in order to support herself and also send money to her son, who was deported to Mexico.
Vasquez spoke in support of a citywide minimum wage at a June 11 demonstration outside St. Paul City Hall. Fifteen people were arrested that day — a planned allusion to the $15 minimum wage — after blocking the intersection of Kellogg Boulevard and Wabasha Street.
In an interview, Vasquez said that a $15 minimum wage is far better than the $10 an hour she's earning now.
"It's not enough," she said in Spanish. "But it's good."
Emma Nelson • 612-673-4509