Group seeks to raise state minimum wage

Missouri voters could be asked to raise the state’s minimum wage to $8.25 an hour.

A group that backed a successful wage increase in the 2006 elections is now pushing to get the minimum wage issue back on the ballot for Missouri’s 2012 elections. The proposed initiative already has been submitted to the secretary of state’s office, which must approve a ballot title before supporters can begin gathering signatures.

Missouri’s minimum wage currently matches the federal requirement of $7.25 an hour. The initiative would ask voters to raise that to $8.25 an hour effective Jan. 1, 2013, with an adjustment for inflation in following years. It also would increase the penalties for businesses that don’t pay the minimum wage. The Associated Press obtained a copy of the proposed initiative under an open-records request to the secretary of state’s office.

At $7.25 an hour, the current minimum wage no longer is providing enough money to meet the needs of some families, said Lara Granich, director of Missouri Jobs With Justice, which is part of a coalition backing the new initiative.

“People are really suffering this recession. More and more families are depending on the minimum wage or on one income,” she said. “We believe this is in the best interest of Missouri’s economy and Missouri’s families to bring the minimum wage up to $8.25.”

About 290,000 Missouri workers currently make less than $8.25 an hour, and an additional 178,000 employees currently earning between $8.25 and $9.25 an hour also could see their paychecks grow if wage scales are adjusted upward to account for a higher minimum wage, according to Missouri Jobs With Justice.

But the proposed initiative already has drawn opposition from the Missouri Chamber of Commerce and Industry, which also opposed the 2006 wage increase. The business association has said that a higher minimum wage — especially when indexed to inflation — discourages businesses from hiring additional employees and can result in layoffs.

“The people who are doing this just don’t get it — they’re putting more stress on an already fragile economy,” said Dan Mehan, president and CEO of the chamber. “We will vigorously oppose that.”

Missouri was following the national minimum wage of $5.15 an hour when voters by an overwhelmingly three-fourths majority decided in November 2006 to raise the state’s minimum wage to $6.50 an hour, effective in 2007. That ballot measure included an annual inflationary adjustment, which would have raised the state’s wage to $7 an hour this year. But since the federal minimum wage is now higher, Missouri follows the federal requirement.

According to the U.S. Department of Labor, 18 states and the District of Columbia now have minimum wages above the federal standard of $7.25 an hour, led by Washington state where the minimum wage is $8.67 an hour. Among Missouri’s neighboring states, only Illinois — at $8.25 an hour — is higher than the federal minimum.

“Basically, what they’re proposing to do is catch Missouri up to Illinois, where it’s been at a higher level for some time,” said Paul Sonn, co-director of the legal section at the National Employment Law Project, which supports efforts to raise the minimum wage.

Contrary to the assertions of some businesses associations, Sonn said that raising the minimum wage can help the bottom line of some businesses.

“Raising the minimum wage helps stimulate consumer demand and ultimately encourages hiring,” Sonn said.

The proposed ballot initiative would expand Missouri’s small business exemption to the minimum wage to cover retail and service-sector employers with annual sales of less than $575,000, adjusted annually for inflation. The current threshold is set at sales of $500,000, with no inflationary adjustment.

The initiative also would require tipped employees — such as food servers — to be paid at least 60 percent of the minimum wage instead of the current 50 percent threshold. The measure would penalize businesses caught violating the minimum wage by requiring them to pay the employee an amount that is double the underpaid wage. Employees would have three years — instead of the current two — to claim those back wages.

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