Mpls. weighs city’s wage authority

The Minneapolis City Council has asked to explore the “legal gray area” of raising the city’s minimum wage to $15 an hour.

by Hannah Weikel and Ethan Nelson

The Minneapolis City Council requested a legal opinion Friday on whether the city has authority to raise the minimum wage to $15.
In the same meeting, the council agreed to commission a study on the impacts of a potential minimum wage increase. Meanwhile, frustrated advocates for a higher minimum wage in the city say they will push for residents to vote on the issue in November. 
Ward 3 Council member Jacob Frey said he doesn’t think Minneapolis should have directed the city attorney to deliver an opinion, calling it a “legal gray area.”
“The question is whether a municipality in the state of Minnesota has the authority to introduce a minimum wage,” Frey said.
While the state hasn’t expressly prevented cities from enacting a minimum wage ordinance, he said other state laws could imply that cities aren’t allowed to raise the minimum wage. 
Frey was the only council member who voted against the motion at the meeting. He said he would prefer that the city make a decision without consulting Susan Segal, the Minneapolis City Attorney.
Fred Morrison, a University of Minnesota law professor and expert in municipal law, said the city attorney’s opinion will hinge on whether Minnesota’s minimum wage law was intended to be the lowest or only permitted wage in the state.
Other cities — Seattle, San Francisco and Los Angeles among them — have passed their own minimum wage increases.
“States in the east tend to hold to state statutes and give localities less leeway,” Morrison said. “States in the west tend to give municipalities more power. We’re in the middle.”
John Schochet, a deputy attorney for Seattle, said the city didn’t encounter any legal issues with the state when it increased its minimum wage.
Minneapolis-area employment law attorney John Klassen said the city must comply with state law, and the state government has always regulated employer and employee relations to keep pay consistent.
“If other cities followed Minneapolis and started declaring different minimum wages, it would create a confusing patchwork across the state,” he said. “Uniformity is a good thing.”
And if Minneapolis raises its minimum wage without guidance from the city attorney, Klassen said, it could have a lawsuit on its hands.
In addition to the dispute over local authority, Morrison said the real question will be the economic impact a higher minimum wage would have on the metro area.
“What is going to happen economically and commercially if Minneapolis raises the minimum wage to $15 and Golden Valley and Richfield and Edina and St. Louis Park don’t?” he said.
To answer that question, Minneapolis also voted Friday to pay for a nearly $150,000 study on the impact a minimum wage hike to $12 and $15 an hour would have on workers and their employers. 
Researchers from four institutions, including the University of Minnesota, will complete the in the next few months.
Ward 5 Council member Blong Yang, who represents parts of North Minneapolis, raised objections to the study’s price tag at Friday’smeeting.
“I don’t know if we have the authority to raise the minimum wage,” Yang said at the meeting. “We need more information from the [city] attorney before spending $150,000 on this.”
At Friday’s meeting, Segal, the city attorney, said she’ll need at least a month to deliver the opinion.
The opinion will be confidential under attorney-client privilege, said city spokesman Casper Hill in an email. 
Bypassing the council
An organization focused on raising the minimum wage to $15 an hour, called 15Now Minnesota, will start a campaign next month to include the issue on November’s ballot.
At the same time, the group, along with Neighborhoods Organizing for Change, will release the results of its own study of a wage hike’s impacts on the area.
Kip Hedges, an organizer for the group, said 15Now’s leaders think the Minneapolis City Council has acted too slowly for people who want a higher wage.
“There are thousands of workers in the Twin Cities that are having a really rough go of it,” he said.
Since 2016 is an election year, he’s said he expects a large voter turnout that will help propel the initiative to the roughly 7,000 signatures it needs to be placed on the ballot.