Missouri lawmakers just took raises away from minimum wage workers

“They literally took money out of the pockets of individuals.”

Fight for 15 protesters in a Kansas City, Missouri Taco Bell in 2014. CREDIT: AP Photo/Charlie Riedel
Fight for 15 protesters in a Kansas City, Missouri Taco Bell in 2014. CREDIT: AP Photo/Charlie Riedel

Bettie Douglas was about to start her long walk to the bus to go to work on Monday morning when a man from the water company showed up at her house in St. Louis, Missouri. He was there to cut off her service.

That news threw her into a tailspin. “No one should have to live like this,” she sobbed. She tries to show up to her fast food job with a smile, as her employer asks, but she was in tears during her entire morning commute thinking about how she was going to deal with potentially losing her water and then having to pay $50 to reconnect it — not to mention paying off what the water company says she owes.

Things were supposed to be a little easier for her by now. In 2015, St. Louis passed a minimum wage increase that would have mandated that workers be paid at least $9 an hour that year, $10 an hour this year, and $11 by next year. But it passed on the very same day that the state’s preemption law, which blocks cities and localities from increasing their own wages, took effect. After a consortium of business groups sued to block the increase, it was under an injunction until a judge in February ruled in favor of the increase. It immediately took effect after the injunction was lifted.

But while the $10 minimum wage is technically in effect now, Douglas says she still hasn’t seen any extra money in her paycheck. She still makes just $7.90 an hour, even after a decade of working at the same place.

“This is how much I really need this,” she said, thinking about her potential water shutoff. “I need that ten dollars so I can pay my bills.”

But on Friday, prospects of her ever getting the raise she so desperately needs dimmed further. Republicans in the state senate pushed through a bill in the last few hours of the session that blocks the St. Louis minimum wage increase. If Gov. Eric Greitens (R) signs it, the city’s minimum wage will revert it back to the state’s floor of $7.70 an hour in August. The governor couldn’t be immediately reached for comment.

“They keep playing with it and taking it back,” Douglas said of the legislature’s vote. “Every day I’m working hard, and it’s so hard to pay my bills. Then they tell us that we don’t deserve a raise.”

Not everyone in the state legislature was on board with blocking the pay increase. Sen. Jamilah Nasheed (D) was one of the lawmakers who staged a two-hour filibuster against the legislation when it was first considered on Wednesday. “It was the right thing to do,” she said. “I don’t know anyone in the St. Louis area who can live off of $7.70 an hour… It’s just inhumane.”

But Democrats weren’t able to block it again when it was reconsidered on Friday. Republican lawmakers brought it up hours before the end of the session and used a maneuver called a previous question that allowed them to push it through without any chance to filibuster. “They basically forced that bill down our throats without any debate, any conversation,” Nasheed said.

“They literally took money out of the pockets of individuals,” she added, given that the minimum wage increase has now gone into effect. “They cut people’s pay.” Republicans in favor of preemption argued that it would be harmful to have different minimum wages in different parts of the state. But Nasheed doesn’t buy that argument, given that none of them took her up on her bill to increase the entire state’s minimum wage to $9 an hour.

Douglas has made countless sacrifices to try to make ends meet on her current pay of $7.90 while raising two sons. “You can’t pay bills, you can’t afford food, you can’t afford anything,” she said. “Every time I turn around, the water bill is going up, the gas bill is going up, the electric bill is going up.” She doesn’t have a car, instead walking seven blocks to take the bus to work every day. The 59-year-old hasn’t even been to the doctor in 16 years because she can’t afford health insurance.

“I don’t even know what we’re going to eat this evening, to be honest,” she said. She calculated that by Thursday she wouldn’t have money for bus fare anymore and would have to find another way to get to work.

“All I want to do is live a comfortable life and pay my bills,” she said. “That’s all I’m asking. Is that too much?”

She joined the Fight for 15 movement and for three years has been fighting to get wages increased to at least $15 an hour. But on Monday, she was feeling deflated. “It’s been years, years and years of this. You just get tired,” she said. “I’m so tired of fighting, fighting for trying to pay my bills.”

“I don’t want anybody to give me anything. I have no problem working for it,” she added. “But give me what I deserve. Don’t work me and treat me like I’m nothing.”

If Douglas is feeling weary, Nasheed is fired up. “What they’re about to see is not only will the city raise the wage, but the whole state of Missouri’s wages will increase,” she said.

She plans to begin a petition to put a minimum wage increase on the next ballot that goes in front of voters. She’s sure voters will approve it. “I’m going to work extremely hard to make that a reality, to make sure that individuals receive a livable wage,” she said. “We’re going to take this fight to the people.”