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Members of Stand Up KC, an organization of fast-food and retail workers advocating for their rights, supported the employee walkout at the Taco Bell on Wornall Road on Sept. 1. The organization has been fighting to increase the minimum wage. (Dominick Williams/ The Beacon)

For years, Kansas City workers and organizers have fought to increase the city’s minimum wage to $15 an hour. The demand was front and center recently when workers at the Taco Bell fast-food restaurant on Wornall Road in Kansas City’s Waldo neighborhood held a walkout over claims of poor working conditions and low wages. 

“We have to drive cars that are constantly on the verge of breaking down or take the bus or Ubers while we are making other people enough to drive Ferraris and Porsches,” said Fran Marion, one of the workers who spoke at a rally in front of the restaurant. 

“Some of the workers up here are even working two jobs just to be able to make ends meet,” said Marion, who is affiliated with the group Stand Up KC, which advocates for higher wages and workers’ right to unionize. 

The current minimum wage in Missouri is $11.15 an hour. However, the living wage  —  the income a single worker requires to meet basic needs for a family of up to three children  —  is $17.19 in Jackson County, according to a living wage calculator from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

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This chart depicts the living, minimum and poverty wages in Jackson County for different household sizes. | Via MIT

Local elections have shown that majorities of voters in Kansas City and Missouri support increasing the minimum wage. But state lawmakers have balked at doing so, contending the increases would burden businesses. Republican legislators have rolled back minimum-wage increases in St. Louis and Kansas City and threatened to overturn the will of voters at the state level.

Wages don’t match the cost of living

Over the decades, real wages  —  meaning wages accounting for inflation  —  have not increased significantly in comparison to the cost of living. The current value of the federally mandated minimum wage, $7.25 an hour, is at its lowest real-dollar level since the 1950s, according to the Economic Policy Institute

Another group, the Center For Economic Policy Research, has calculated that if the federal minimum wage had increased in line with inflation, it would now be $21.50 an hour.

The cost of living is increasing significantly. This summer saw a hike in gas prices, as well as shortages in affordable housing. In a sign of soaring living expenses, the Kansas City Council recently passed an ordinance defining affordability for a one-bedroom at nearly $1,200, while getting rid of the requirement to make 10% of apartments extremely affordable for households earning 30% of the area median income.

“Workers are being squeezed in both directions,” said Sirisha Naidu, associate professor of economics at the University of Missouri-Kansas City. 

“Wages were not sufficient even before to cover basic expenses,” Naidu said. “But now with rents increasing, this unaffordability of living in a city like Kansas City is becoming worse.”

Fran Marion, who makes $16 an hour as an opening shift manager at Taco Bell, still finds herself living paycheck to paycheck. 

“Just recently I was out of town and I got a notice that I owe the landlord $65.22  and that if we didn’t pay, we would have to be out in three days,” she said. 

“For some people $65 may seem like nothing. But for me, five hours of work —  that’s the difference between keeping a roof over my family’s head or being out in the street.”

Missouri lawmakers oppose an increase in KC minimum wages

The recent history of attempts to raise the minimum wage in Missouri is a story of some small steps forward and some large steps backward.

In 2018, Missouri voters approved Proposition B, increasing the state’s minimum wage by 85 cents a year until it reaches $12 in 2023. 

In Kansas City, however, voters have pushed to raise the city’s minimum wage to $15 an hour. 

The City Council in 2015 passed an ordinance to raise the minimum wage to $13 an hour. The ordinance sat in court for two years, with the city’s minimum wage finally being increased to $10 an hour in 2017. 

That same year, the Missouri legislature passed a preemption law, which dictates that state laws supersede laws and ordinances passed by local governments. The 2017 law specifically banned the approval of a minimum wage higher than the state’s  — thereby nullifying higher increases passed in Kansas City and St. Louis.  

Missouri Gov. Mike Parson has pushed for a $15-an-hour minimum wage for state workers, but even that proposal was blocked by Republicans in the state Senate.

Lawmakers and others worry that even modest minimum-wage increases will increase the cost of business and production. But Naidu said studies show that livable wages can boost  the economy. 

“In fact, increasing the minimum wage and allowing workers to have a decent living is beneficial to the city, and perhaps the state,” she said.

Better wages allow workers to spend money in the local economy, Naidu pointed out.

“As much as it might be a cost for businesses, it’s also potential purchasing power,” she said. “So you might pay someone higher, and they might come back to your business and spend much more than they used to, if they had lower wages.” 

Raising the minimum wage would likely result in a more productive, healthier workforce, Naidu added.

“It also comes down to what kind of society we want,” she said. 

A fight for dignity 

At the Taco Bell rally, workers in Kansas City supported the Fast Food Accountability and Standards Recovery Act, which recently was signed into law by Gov. Gavin Newsom of California. The law creates a statewide council, including workers, that will help set wages up to $22 an hour and improve conditions for fast-food workers in the state. 

The law was opposed by the National Restaurant Association and other groups, which warn it could be replicated by other states and harm businesses. 

The chances of a California-style law or a $22-an-hour minimum wage goal clearing the Missouri legislature seem remote. But workers and groups like Stand Up KC said they would continue the fight to get rid of preemption laws and increase wages in Kansas City.

“Wages represent sort of an economic element, but I think it also goes to this issue of dignity,” Naidu said. “You are saying something about what that person is worth, you’re saying that you are not worth a decent living. What people are trying to fight for is a better life and dignity.” 

This story was originally published by The Kansas City Beacon, an online news outlet focused on local, in-depth journalism in the public interest.

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