Minnesota’s second-largest city has joined the growing wave of cities across the country that have decided to require that workers be paid a minimum of $15 an hour.
The St. Paul City Council followed their counterparts in Minneapolis on Wednesday and approved the citywide $15 minimum wage, which will be completely phased in by July 2027. Mayor Melvin Carter signed it into law a short time later.
“I’m so excited to celebrate this historic day for workers in St. Paul,” said Council Member Mitra Jalali Nelson.
The unanimous vote was the culmination of about a year of lobbying, protests, public meetings and studies focused on how a minimum-wage increase would affect St. Paul, and how much the city should mirror the policy Minneapolis has already started to roll out.
A group representing local businesses expressed dismay over the decision.
Lauryn Schothorst, director of energy and labor/management policy at the Minnesota Chamber of Commerce, said in a statement that the chamber “remains opposed to this action by St. Paul and the growing trend among local governments to mandate private-sector wages and benefits.”
The Minneapolis City Council passed a $15 minimum wage ordinance in 2017 after years of pressure from labor activists. At the time, those activists said St. Paul was their next target — and the ordinance meets many of their demands.
Though the ordinance includes exemptions that activists oppose — including for youth workers and some franchises — it does not exempt tipped workers.
The “tip credit” or “tip penalty” was the most contentious part of the debate in both St. Paul and Minneapolis, with employers and employees in the restaurant business arguing that their industry will suffer if they can’t count tips toward the $15 minimum. Opponents countered that the exemption would lead to wage theft and expose employees to sexual harassment.
Sean O’Byrne, who opened St. Paul’s Great Waters Brewing Company in 1997, said he supported an exemption for tipped workers and thought city leaders did “a very poor job of listening to business owners” during the minimum wage process.
O’Byrne won’t be around to see how the wage hike affects his restaurant — he’s sold it, and the new owner takes over in a couple weeks.
“We’ve been around for 22 years, and the landscape has changed quite a bit,” O’Byrne said when asked why he decided to sell. “And then knowing that this $15 minimum wage was on the horizon would just make that landscape even rockier and tougher.”
For many of the workers who packed into City Hall on Wednesday, though, the council vote was a sign of brighter days to come.
Sherita Moseley, who’s worked in the restaurant industry for 20 years — including 10 in St. Paul — said she makes the state minimum wage of $9.65 an hour, and her tips can vary widely from shift to shift. A $15 minimum wage will make it possible to meet the rising costs of living, she said.
“You don’t get raises if you’re a server unless the government steps in,” Moseley said.
Mayor prepared for months
Carter campaigned on a $15 minimum wage and pledged in his inaugural address to implement it as soon as possible.
“I was just thinking about how excited I am to sign this paper,” Carter told city employees, activists and members of his family who gathered after the council vote to watch him sign the ordinance into law. “I think the only paper I’ve ever signed that was more exciting than this might be my marriage certificate.”
In their first weeks at City Hall, Carter and his staff started talking to other city officials, business owners, union leaders and advocates about the minimum wage, according to more than 1,500 pages of e-mails the Star Tribune obtained through a public records request.
The e-mails show the new mayor was eager to get an ordinance passed. In an exchange with Deputy Mayor Jaime Tincher the week after the inauguration, Carter said he didn’t want to wait for the nonpartisan Citizens League to finish its two-part minimum wage report before starting to craft a policy.
“It feels like there’s a move afoot to just try to create drag on the process where Minimum Wage is concerned; that’s why I added ‘as soon as possible’ to my speech last week to put people on notice,” Carter wrote.
In an interview Wednesday, Carter said he could not recall what he was referring to when he mentioned an effort to delay the minimum wage increase.
“In general, my commitment has always been to get this done in 2018,” he said, “and I’ve always wanted to make sure that as we did the process … that we were all clear that the purpose of doing all of this has to be so that we can move forward toward getting a policy adopted, and not to try to put up roadblocks.”
Getting to $15
Council members said early this year that they expected to pass a minimum wage ordinance, but didn’t want to settle on specifics until there had been opportunities for public input and the Citizens League had completed its report.
Over the summer, the Citizens League led a minimum wage study committee and released a final report that recommended the City Council approve a $15 minimum wage. When Carter unveiled a draft ordinance in October that laid out a timeline to phase in a $15 minimum wage with no tip exemption, the majority of council members expressed support.
Council Member Rebecca Noecker said the city has listened to residents and came up with what she called a “great” ordinance. She also acknowledged the challenges that some businesses will face and the need for the city to provide both support and enforcement.
With St. Paul’s law now on the books, activists are turning their attention elsewhere.
“The big goal, obviously, is to bring it statewide,” said D’Narius Lewis, who works as a personal care assistant in St. Paul.