JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. (AP) - Low-wage workers described how they often must skip meals to make ends meet as they urged Missouri lawmakers Tuesday to let voters decide whether to increase the state's minimum wage to $10 an hour.
Missouri's minimum wage currently stands at $7.50 an hour - 25 cents more than the federal minimum - and is adjusted annually for inflation under the terms of a state law passed by voters in 2006.
Legislation by Sen. Jamilah Nasheed, D-St. Louis, would raise the state's minimum wage to $10 an hour in 2015 and continue to adjust it annually thereafter based on changes in a cost-of-living index. If approved by the Legislature, the measure would go on the November ballot.
The proposal is a longshot in the Republican-led Legislature, where many lawmakers have expressed concerns about the effect of a wage hike on businesses. But supporters turned in strong numbers for the hearing before the Senate Small Business, Insurance and Industry Committee. The panel took no vote on the bill.
The group Missouri Jobs for Justice also has filed a potential initiative petition to get a minimum wage increase on the ballot. But director Lara Granich said Tuesday that supporters aren't gathering petition signatures and are instead hoping the Legislature will place a wage hike before voters.
Patrick Leeper, a fast-food restaurant worker from University City, told senators he eats as much as he can while at work because he often cannot afford other meals. He said he sometimes walks more than an hour as part of his journey to work to avoid the cost of transportation.
"As far as eating, a 50 cent Honey Bun or 50 cent Nutty Buddy or a pack of ramen noodles is like steak - get what you can get," Leeper said.
India Bloom, a student at the University of Missouri-Columbia, said she works about 30 hours a week while taking a full course load and often has to choose between paying a utility bill or eating. One of her jobs is at a campus dining hall, where she can eat at a discounted cost of 69 cents.
"There have been plenty of weeks where that was my only meal every day," Bloom said. "I can barely afford to scrape by, and I live paycheck by paycheck every single month."
Economics Professor Allen MacNeill, of Webster University in St. Louis, said a minimum wage could help the economy because low-wage workers are likely to spend the additional money. He described a $10 minimum wage as "quite moderate" - essentially setting the standard at a little less than it would have been if a federal 1968 minimum wage had been regularly adjusted for inflation.
Lobbyists for a variety of business groups testified against the measure.
David Overfelt, whose clients include the Missouri Grocers Association and Missouri Retailers Association, said a higher minimum wage could force some employees out of the workforce as businesses become choosier about whom to keep on their payrolls.
"This economy is tough, I understand that," Overfelt said. "This type of an increase could make it even tougher for the people with the lowest skills."
Jay Atkins, an attorney for the Missouri Chamber of Commerce and Industry, said he worked numerous minimum-wage jobs at restaurants and other places before he graduated from college. He rejected implications that people are stuck in low-wage jobs.
"The idea that there was something better out there was a motivating factor in my life," Atkins said.
Minimum wage bill is SB531.