Challenge: enforcing city’s new minimum wage hike

Citizens filled the chamber for the Lexington Urban County Council’s vote on a minimum wage increase.
Citizens filled the chamber for the Lexington Urban County Council’s vote on a minimum wage increase. Herald-Leader

There should be a particular thanksgiving this week for those who advocated long and hard to raise the minimum wage in Fayette County. After almost a year of debate, setbacks and compromises, the Urban County Council last week approved raising the local minimum wage to $10.10 an hour over three years.

Particular recognition must go to council member Jennifer Mossotti, the primary sponsor of the legislation, who worked tirelessly and deftly to shepherd it through to passage.

But the work isn’t over.

The city must figure out how to educate both workers and their employers about the new wage and how to enforce it. Fortunately, there’s time to work on both issues since the first increase won’t go into effect until July 1, 2016, when the minimum wage in Fayette County will rise to $8.20 an hour from the current federal minimum of $7.25.

The council is on break this week for Thanksgiving but when it returns should assign a council committee to study how other communities have approached these issues, explore possible approaches here and come back with recommendations to the full council.

This doesn’t mean Lexington needs to design a new bureaucracy. The city has become smart and efficient in recent years, particularly in delivering social services, about forming partnerships with local organizations already in the field. That same model can serve to reach out to low-wage workers who will be affected by the increase, both to inform them of the changes they should see in their paychecks next July and tell them where to go if the new wages don’t materialize.

The ordinance passed last week provided for employees who believe they’ve been shortchanged to bring a civil lawsuit against employers for full wages and to submit complaints to the Citizens’ Advocate’s office in local government. Those are a start but Lexington will need to go further.

Most low-wage workers won’t bring civil suits against their employers. The burden of finding an attorney, pursuing an action and, even if they win in court, recovering the lost wages is huge. While the citizens’ advocate can play an important role in tracking complaints and reporting to the council and the public, it has no enforcement authority. Federal and state labor departments are not charged with enforcing local labor laws. Lexington will have to create the authority within city to government to pursue violators on behalf of people with very little money or power.

Fortunately, there is now a fair amount of information about local approaches to enforcement, since many cities and counties in the United States have tired of waiting for federal or state action and passed local wage laws. Last month the UCLA Labor Center published a report on local enforcement in California, where more local communities have raised wages than in any other state.

For those who complain that this developing enforcement authority will only mean more power for government and new hassles for struggling employers, we’d make a couple of points.

First, even without this local increase, many low-wage workers, in Lexington and elsewhere, are victims of wage theft in which employers either pay illegally low hourly wages or don’t pay for all hours worked. That’s wrong, it dishonors work, and it puts those cheating businesses at an advantage over their honest competitors.

Second, Lexington, which depends so heavily on payroll taxes, is estimated to gain almost half a million dollars in revenue in the first year of this increase, growing to $1.7 million in the third year. It’s reasonable to reinvest some of that increase in protecting the people paying the taxes.