attica bus
Councilwoman Attica Scott speaking at a rally to raise the minimum wage

After Jefferson County Attorney Mike O’Connell released his opinion on Monday that Metro Government can pass and enforce its own minimum wage increase, many expected council Democrats to quickly push forward such an ordinance, as they all signed an op-ed this summer signaling unanimous support for such a move. However, division and skepticism emerged at the caucus meeting of Democrats yesterday, with several looking to exempt certain businesses or workers they say will be negatively impacted.

Councilwoman Attica Scott, D-1, who has long supported an ordinance to raise the minimum wage incrementally to $10.10 in three years, explained to the caucus that she and Councilwoman Barbara Shanklin, D-2, have proposed moving the first phase of the increase to July 2015 and changing the exemption from businesses that have two or less employees to 10 or less. She also mentioned that Council President Jim King, D-10, and Councilwoman Marianne Butler, D-15, had proposed further exemptions on certain businesses they feel would be hurt by such an increase.

Councilman Rick Blackwell, D-12, spoke up to say there would be merit in exempting certain young workers who are just entering the workforce, fearing that a full implementation of a minimum increase could harm the ability of kids to find employment in the summer. King responded by saying that is why he brought up the question, as “I don’t want those jobs to disappear.”

Councilwoman Cindi Fowler, D-14, chimed in with agreement, noting that a business owner told her he didn’t want to pay new employees a wage that high. “He said if this goes through, I’m going to have to close my doors,” Fowler said. “So I do share those same concerns.”

Such sentiments were strongly rejected by other Democrats, beginning with Councilwoman Cheri Bryant Hamilton, D-5, who said she would expect to hear such rhetoric from Republicans, not Democrats.

“I’m hearing some concerns that I’d expect to hear on the second floor,” said Hamilton, referring to the floor on which council Republicans meet.

Councilwoman Tina Ward-Pugh, D-9, stepped in to advocate limiting such exemptions and expanding the wage increase to as many industries and workers as possible. Councilwoman Mary Woolridge, D-3, agreed, saying people made the same arguments about exemptions from the local smoking ban ordinance, as certain bars and businesses said it would make them close their doors, which did not happen.

“I just don’t buy the argument that if you raise the minimum wage 85 cents a year, people are going to close up their shop,” said Woolridge. “I just don’t buy that.”

Councilman David James, D-6, agreed, pointing out that despite King advocating the exemption of teenage workers via an email to council members, such an action would be age discrimination and unwarranted.

“Whether they are teenagers or adults, they still have to survive, they still have to feed their children, they still have to buy gas, they still have to do all those things,” said James. “Are there exceptions for some people who are not in such a situation? There are. But I think we have to look at everybody and help from the lowest common denominator up.”

Insider Louisville obtained the email from King that explicitly asked for a “minimum age” exemption, saying that young workers don’t deserve a minimum wage increase.

I would also like you to consider a ‘minimum age’ for ‘minimum wage,'” wrote King. “Many entry-level jobs for untrained high school age children are used to teach them how to work and seldom deserve a wage above the federal minimum. High school age children are not raising families and in many cases fortunate to get a job.”

Blackwell then jumped back into the conversation to make sure people didn’t get the impression that he’s against a minimum wage increase, but emphasized that he didn’t want to hurt the chances of kids finding summer employment. Councilwoman Vicki Aubrey Welch, D-13, chimed in to add, “We’ve just got Kentucky Kingdom back.”

King added, “I’m in the same place with Kentucky Kingdom. It’s easy to give a raise with someone else’s money.” He said members should listen to business owners and “the Junior Bridgemans of the world” to hear their perspective.

“In general, I think all of us support it,” said King. “We all signed onto a letter saying we support it, and I think we do. But the devil is always in the details.”

After the meeting, Attica Scott told Insider Louisville she understands some council members are hearing concerns from their constituents, but she is trying to finish a draft of a new ordinance by the end of next week that can gain enough support among most of the caucus. While Scott obviously supported her original ordinance without exemptions, she’ll now have to enter the debate on how large those exemptions will have to be in order for the legislation to pass.

“It’s just a matter of us deciding what those exemptions are, what makes the most sense,” says Scott. “We know we can’t do a minimum age, because that’s age discrimination. But what is it we can do that has the least amount of harm for our businesses, but will impact the most people for the good.”

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Joe Sonka
Joe Sonka is a staff writer at Insider Louisville focusing on government, politics, education and public safety. He is a former news editor and staff writer at LEO Weekly and has also freelanced for The Nation and ThinkProgress. He has won first place awards from the Louisville Metro chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists in the categories of Health Reporting, Enterprise Reporting, Government/Politics, Minority/Women’s Affairs Reporting, Continuing Coverage and Best Blog. Email him at [email protected]