Backers of an effort to raise the minimum wage in Lexington hope a judge's decision Monday in a Louisville court case will prompt the Urban County Council to move ahead with a stalled wage ordinance.
"Lexington's low-wage workers deserve the same opportunity to raise their standard of living and quality of life," said Jennifer Mossotti, the Urban County Councilwoman who sponsored Lexington's minimum-wage ordinance. "I strongly urge my council colleagues on the Budget, Finance and Economic Development Committee to now move forward and do the right thing, and reconsider the recent tabling of the proposed minimum-wage increase for Lexington."
The Budget, Finance and Economic Development Committee voted 6-3 last week to table the minimum-wage proposal until the Jefferson County court case is resolved. The Louisville Metro Council passed an ordinance in December that would increase the minimum wage to $9 an hour over the next three years. A coalition of businesses — including the Kentucky Restaurant Association and the Kentucky Retail Federation — challenged the ordinance in Jefferson Circuit Court. They alleged that the merged government did not have the authority to raise the minimum wage.
In a four-page decision Monday, Jefferson Circuit Court Judge Judith E. McDonald-Burkman ruled that local governments can set minimum wages. The General Assembly gave Louisville, as a first-class city, "broad authority to govern itself" and granted "complete home rule," McDonald-Burkman wrote.
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She also dismissed arguments by business groups that raising the minimum wage in Jefferson County would be too cumbersome for businesses that have employees in other counties. "An employee may work in different counties as part of his or her employment, and the employer must calculate the wages earned in each county to determine the appropriate occupational tax withholding," the judge wrote. "Additionally, what is legal in one county may be illegal in another, such as indoor smoking, and alcohol and fireworks sales."
Brent Baughman, a lawyer representing the business groups, said Monday that they will appeal and will ask the state Court of Appeals for an emergency hearing or an injunction before Wednesday — when the first pay raise for Jefferson County minimum-wage workers is set to take effect. Baughman said the groups will also ask the state Supreme Court to hear the case rather than the state Court of Appeals. Depending on whether the Supreme Court decides to hear the case, an appeal can take a few months to a year.
"We are disappointed," Baughman said. "But I think everyone understood that this is going to go up on appeal."
Lexington Vice Mayor Steve Kay, who backed the minimum-wage proposal, said Monday that the council probably won't be able to revisit the issue before its monthlong break. The council goes on break starting July 8 and will return Aug. 11.
"I think we are still going to wait and see and consider what our options are now that we have this positive ruling," Kay said.
Lexington is the only city in Kentucky currently considering raising the minimum wage.
Mossotti said she hopes that Monday's ruling will prompt the council to at least restart discussions on the proposal to gradually raise Lexington's minimum hourly wage to $10.10 over the next three years. Mossotti said she's not sure if or when the council could take up the issue. The committee voted to table discussion on the ordinance until the appeal was exhausted.
"I am looking at all available options," Mossotti said. "I'm trying to determine the best way forward."
Many on the council's Budget, Finance and Economic Development Committee said during the June 23 meeting that they have not yet had a chance to discuss the details of the ordinance. The proposed ordinance also calls for raising the minimum wage for tipped employees. The Louisville ordinance did not.
Another key difference is that the Lexington ordinance would tie the minimum wage to the consumer price index after it reaches $10.10. Many council members expressed reservations about raising the minimum wage in Fayette County when surrounding counties keep their wage at the current federal minimum of $7.25.
The Urban County Council is nonpartisan. But many of its most conservative members are on the Budget, Finance and Economic Development Committee.
Mossotti said more than 20 local governments across the country have raised the minimum wage — particularly in areas where the cost of living is high. The University of Kentucky and the state of Kentucky recently upped their minimum hourly wage for most employees to about $10 beginning July 1.
"Every day we delay is a lost opportunity to ensure workers in our community can better support and care for themselves and their families — an objective that this is well within our scope of legislative policy-making," Mossotti said.