States rush to block local efforts to hike minimum pay

Currently viewed as DOA on Capitol Hill, the battle to increase the minimum wage is being waged at a state-by-state and city-by-town level.

With federal efforts to increase pay for the lowest earners stalled by Republican opposition, a slew of states, cities and towns across the country have hiked the local base pay on their own. But other states are doing the opposite, in some cases passing laws prohibiting cities and towns from changing workers' pay and benefits on their own.

Recent weeks have seen the continuation of a substantial pushback to efforts in cities and towns around the country to raise the minimum wage. Utah and Alabama are the latest examples of states either defeating measures to increase minimum pay or overriding local efforts to hike pay.

Minimum wage protests take place across the country

"It is an important story that is still developing, but part of a national story of conservative legislatures across the country moving to essentially chill progressive measures at the local level," said Laura Huizar, a staff attorney at National Employment Law Project, or NELP, which advocates for increasing minimum wages. "More than 15 states now have passed these preemptive laws," said Huizar, who added that some prohibit not only wage hikes, but also bar rules to standardize worker schedules and extend benefits such as paid sick leave.

The push to raise the minimum wage and resulting counteroffensive recalls the period that persisted for nearly a decade until the passage of the federal Fair Minimum Wage Act of 2007. That law mandated taking hourly pay from $5.15 to $7.25 as of July 2009, where it has held ever since.

"It's the revitalization of a trend. During that period when minimum wage was really stuck up to 2007, there was a big growth in living-wage ordinances," Holly Sklar, CEO of Business for a Fair Minimum Wage, a national network of companies that advocates for a minimum wage that's indexed to the cost of living. "Every time you have a long period, the less likely you'll catch up on the ground that was lost, even when you raise the minimum wage."

In Alabama, state lawmakers argued they were thinking about low-income workers remaining employed when they passed a bill that dashed the hopes of an estimated 40,000 workers in Birmingham who were anticipating minimum pay of $10.10 an hour starting in July, thanks to a City Council ordinance passed this summer.

Alabama's governor late last month signed into law the measure that stops any individual city from setting its own minimum wage, including the one slated for Birmingham. Proponents of the state law, including Bill Hightower, a Republican state senator, argued a wage hike would hurt employment in Alabama.

The legislature's move drew a stern rebuke from Johnathan Austin, president of Birmingham's city council, who alluded to a potential court fight over the issue.

"Never before in the history of Alabama's post-segregation era has a bill so detrimental to the very people who most of us depend on daily ... been fast-tracked in the State Legislature. It took less than 10 days for this bill to be debated in both the House and the Senate, and signed by the governor," Austin said in a statement. "This fight has just begun."

In Utah, for at least a third year in a row, a proposal to increase the state's minimum wage was rapidly spiked in the state legislature. A bill to hike hourly pay for workers over 16 to $12 from the $7.25 was unable to clear a house committee, which on Thursday voted 8-3 to table it.

In Idaho, Democrats have reintroduced a bill in the House to raise the state's minimum wage from $7.25 to $9.25 over a two-year period. The bid could be uphill, however, given similar legislation didn't get a hearing in the state's Senate.

U.S. states, cities raising minimum wage

In other states, the issues are being aired in court. The Missouri Supreme Court in mid-January said it would hear a challenge to St. Louis' minimum wage law this summer. A judge in October blocked the law, which would have hiked the city's minimum pay from $7.65 to $11 an hour.

Conversely, Oregon's governor last week signed legislation to make the state's minimum wages the nation's highest, above Massachusetts and California. The three-tier plan takes into account the costs of living in differing areas. In Portland, minimum hourly pay in July will rise from $9.25 to $14.75, and to $13.50 in smaller cities and $12.50 in rural areas.

The year began with minimum wages rising in 14 states: Alaska, Arkansas, California, Colorado, Connecticut, Hawaii, Massachusetts, Michigan, Nebraska, New York, Rhode Island, South Dakota, Vermont and West Virginia.

In addition to Alabama, states that have already passed laws preempting local minimum wage laws include Colorado, Florida, Georgia, Indiana, Kansas, Louisiana, Michigan, Mississippi, North Carolina, Oklahoma, Oregon, Rhode Island, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, Utah and Wisconsin.

One group that advocates against mandating hikes in minimum pay noted the first anniversary of Oakland, California's wage hike by issuing a statement claiming that at least 10 businesses in and around the city's Chinatown had closed in part due to the increase.

"One year ago, Oakland voters hoped they could lift up the city's lowest earning residents with this dramatic minimum wage increase," said Michael Saltsman, research director at the Employment Policies Institute, in a statement marking the first anniversary of the city's wage hike. "Instead, they have left many of them without any earnings at all."

NELP's Huizar disputes the notion, saying: "We have about 20 years of economic research that concludes that increasing the minimum wage does not lead to a discernible impact on employment."