The fight for a living wage in Kansas City no longer stops at $15 an hour • Missouri Independent

This story was originally posted by Kansas City beacon.

For years, Kansas City workers and organizers have fought to raise the city’s minimum wage to $15 an hour. Demand was front and center recently when workers at the Taco Bell fast food restaurant on Wornall Road in the Waldo neighborhood of Kansas City staged a To go for a walk on allegations of poor working conditions and low wages.

“We have to drive cars that are constantly on the verge of breaking down or ride the bus or Ubers while we make enough other people to drive Ferraris and Porsches,” said Fran Marion, one of the workers who spoke at a rally in front of the restaurant.

“Some of the workers here are even working two jobs just to make ends meet,” said Marion, who is affiliated with the Stand Up KC group, which advocates for higher wages and the right of workers to unionize.

The current minimum wage in Missouri is $11.15 per hour. However, the living wage — the income a single worker needs to meet the basic needs of a family with up to three children — is $17.19 in Jackson County, according to a living wage calculator from Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

The local elections showed that the majority of voters in Kansas City and Missouri support raising the minimum wage. But state lawmakers have been reluctant to do so, saying the increases would weigh on businesses. Republican lawmakers reversed minimum wage increases in St. Louis and Kansas City and threatened to overturn the will of voters at the state level.

Salaries do not match the cost of living

Over the decades, real wages—that is, wages adjusting for inflation—have not increased significantly relative to the cost of living. According to Economic Policy Institute.

Another group, te Center for Economic Policy Research, calculated that if the federal minimum wage had increased in line with inflation, it would now be $21.50 an hour.

The cost of living increases considerably. This summer has seen a hiking in gas prices, as well as shortages of affordable housing. In a sign of soaring living expenses, the Kansas City Council recently passed an ordinance define affordability for a one-bedroom apartment at almost $1,200, while removing the requirement to make 10% of apartments extremely affordable for households earning 30% of the region’s median income.

“Workers are squeezed back and forth,” said Sirisha Naidu, associate professor of economics at the University of Missouri-Kansas City.

“Salaries were not enough even before to cover basic expenses,” Naidu said. “But now, with rising rents, that unaffordability of living in a city like Kansas City is getting worse.”

Fran Marion, who earns $16 an hour as an opening shift supervisor at Taco Bell, still finds herself living paycheck to paycheck.

“Just recently I was out of town and got a notice that I owed the landlord $65.22 and if we didn’t pay we had to leave in three days,” he said. she declared.

“To some people, $65 may seem like nothing. But for me, five hours of work is the difference between keeping a roof over my family’s head or being on the streets.

Missouri lawmakers oppose KC raise

The recent history of attempts to raise the minimum wage in Missouri is a story of a few small steps forward and big steps back.

In 2018, Missouri voters approved Proposal Bincreasing the state minimum wage by 85 cents per year until it reaches $12 in 2023.

In Kansas City, however, voters lobbied to raise the city’s minimum wage to $15 an hour.

The city council in 2015 placed a prescription raise the minimum wage to $13 an hour. The ordinance languished in court for two years, with the city’s minimum wage eventually raised to $10 an hour in 2017.

That same year, the Missouri legislature passed a preemption law, which dictates that state laws supersede laws and ordinances passed by local governments. The 2017 law specifically prohibited the approval of a minimum wage higher than the state, effectively reversing the higher increases passed in Kansas City. and Saint Louis.

Missouri Gov. Mike Parson pushed for a $15-an-hour minimum wage for state workers, but even that proposal was blocked by Republicans in the state Senate.

Lawmakers and others worry that even modest increases in the minimum wage will increase the cost of doing business and producing. But Naidu said studies show decent wages can boost the economy.

“In fact, raising the minimum wage and allowing workers to have a decent living is good for the city, and maybe for the state,” she said.

Better wages allow workers to spend money in the local economy, Naidu pointed out.

“As much as it might be a cost to businesses, it’s also potential buying power,” she said. “So you could pay someone more, and they could come back to your company and spend a lot more than before, if they had lower wages.”

Raising the minimum wage would likely result in a more productive and healthier workforce, Naidu added.

“It also depends on what kind of society we want,” she said.

A fight for dignity

At the Taco Bell rally, Kansas City workers supported the Fast Food Accountability and Standards Recovery Act, which was recently signed into law by Governor Gavin Newsom of California. The law creates a statewide council, including workers, that will help set wages up to $22 an hour and improve conditions for fast-food workers in the state.

The law was fought by the National Restaurant Association and other groups, who warns it could be replicated by other states and harm businesses.

The chances of a California-style law or a $22-an-hour minimum wage goal obliterating the Missouri legislature seem remote. But workers and groups like Stand Up KC said they would continue the fight to get rid of preemption laws and raise wages in Kansas City.

“Salaries represent a kind of economic element, but I think it also relates to this question of dignity,” said Naidu. “You say something about what this person is worth, you say you are not worth a decent life. What people are trying to fight for is a better life and dignity.

This story was originally posted by The Kansas City Lighthousean online medium focused on in-depth local journalism in the public interest.

Michael A. Bynum