See more of the story

The activists started filing into St. Paul City Hall more than two hours before a public hearing on the citywide minimum wage was supposed to begin.

About 200 people packed into the council chambers Wednesday evening, delaying the start of the hearing because the crowd exceeded fire code. It was the culmination of about a year of studies, protests and public meetings on how St. Paul should implement a citywide minimum wage.

"We wanted to hear from you before we started the process," said City Council President Amy Brendmoen. "We listened to you, we heard you, and the ordinance reflects that."

The council is poised to approve a citywide $15 minimum wage by the end of the year. The policy will bring St. Paul in line with Minneapolis and other cities across the country, and make good on Mayor Melvin Carter's inauguration pledge to implement a $15 minimum wage.

Discussion of the minimum wage issue in St. Paul, as in Minneapolis, has centered on which workers will get a raise and when.

Under St. Paul's proposed ordinance, which was released to the public last month, employers would be required to start phasing in the wage increase in 2020. City employees would reach $15 an hour first, in July 2022, followed by workers at large businesses — those with at least 100 employees — a year later.

Council Member Dai Thao introduced an amendment that would allow businesses with fewer than 100 employees to raise the minimum wage more slowly. Thao said the amendment is an effort to support small and immigrant-owned businesses that may struggle with the added costs of higher wages, but some minimum wage advocates have opposed the idea of a longer phase-in.

Council Member Rebecca Noecker introduced multiple amendments, including one that defines "macro businesses" as those with more than 10,000 employees, and would require that they pay workers $15 an hour by July 2022. Other amendments lay out a process for investigating and penalizing employers who violate the ordinance, as well as protections for workers who report violations.

More than 56,000 workers would get a raise under the proposed ordinance, according to the city. The ordinance includes exemptions for some workers with disabilities, youth workers in city-approved training programs and players on the roster of the Saints baseball team. Council Member Chris Tolbert introduced an amendment removing an exemption, included in the first version of the ordinance, for workers covered by a collective bargaining agreement.

Marquise Tatum, a student at Johnson High School, spoke in favor of the ordinance Wednesday but said he opposes the exemption for youth workers. Tatum said he's worked for three years at a nonprofit organization and uses what he makes to support his family. His mother makes $400 a month, he said; rent is $700 a month.

"Our bare minimum is not working. I work my job just so that we have a place to stay," he said. "We're barely surviving."

Most of the people who spoke against the ordinance Wednesday said they support a tip exemption, which would allow employers to count employees' tips as wages.

Alexis Tichy, an East Side resident who worked as a server at Ward 6 restaurant before it closed earlier this year, said she doesn't want more small businesses to close because of the minimum wage increase. Tichy said she previously worked in Arizona, a state with a lower hourly wage for tipped workers, and was able to raise her children on that wage, plus what she made in tips.

"Telling all of us flat-out that we need to make $15 an hour — we already make it," she said. "I just think you should rethink your approach."

Despite the ongoing restaurant industry push to exempt tipped workers from the wage increase, council members say it's not likely to happen.

The Minnesota Licensed Beverage Association recently told its members in an e-mail that Council Member Jane Prince planned to introduce a tip exemption amendment. Prince said she considered a proposal for a $20 "super wage" for tipped workers that would count tips toward the hourly total, but she has not introduced an amendment.

"I think there's room to talk further," she said.

Emma Nelson • 612-673-4509