After years of failed proposals in the Texas Legislature to raise the minimum wage, organizers and advocates for higher hourly wages are going local.
Leaders in two major Texas cities and two large counties will vote soon on raising minimum wages for public employees and, in some cases, for employees of private companies that contract or receive financial incentives from local governments.
In Austin, a minimum wage hike to $13.03 an hour for full-time employees will be up for consideration in September as part of the city’s proposed budget. San Antonio leaders will consider a minimum wage of $13 an hour next month. Bexar County is also poised to increase its minimum wage to $13 an hour, while El Paso County could vote next month to boost pay for its lowest-paid employees to $10 an hour. Minimum wages in those localities currently range from $9.45 to $11.66 an hour.
Local organizers affiliated with the Industrial Areas Foundation are hopeful all four proposals will be approved, saying they’ve received assurances from city and county officials. But for these advocates, the wins could mean sending a message to state lawmakers who have been unable to garner enough support to raise the minimum wage statewide.
“We just didn’t see anything happening on this in the legislative session. Nothing is going to happen next year ... so we decided to work with local public officials in getting something passed,” said Arturo Aguila, the lead organizer for the El Paso Interreligious Sponsoring Organization and Border Interfaith organization. “We thought that might send a message to the state legislators that cities across the state are already taking the initiative to do this.”
Texas does not have a state-mandated minimum wage and instead enforces the federal minimum of $7.25 an hour.
In 2014, 182,000 of the nearly 6.4 million hourly workers in Texas earned $7.25 an hour while 179,000 made less, according the the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. (Wage and salary workers in Texas earned a median rate of $12.24 an hour that year.)
With 5.7 percent of all hourly paid workers earning minimum wage or less, Texas has a higher share of those workers than the national share, which sits at 3.9 percent. And among states, Texas has the highest raw number of hourly workers earning the minimum wage or less.
Democratic proposals to increase the minimum wage statewide have been non-starters in the Texas Legislature.
In the legislative session that wrapped up this year, House Democrats filed five proposals that would have increased the minimum wage to $8.25 or $10.10, but only a measure by state Rep. Trey Martinez Fischer of San Antonio made it to the full House for a vote. His proposal would have asked voters to approve a constitutional amendment setting the minimum wage at $10.10, but it was shot down on a mostly party-line vote with only two Republicans supporting the legislation.
Martinez Fischer touted the support the measure gained among some Republicans who helped usher his proposal out of committee and onto the House calendar for consideration, but he added that its demise is part of a legislative aversion to state mandates.
“We can’t pass a statewide ban on texting while driving, but local jurisdictions have come up with a way to say, 'Well maybe not in my city,'” Martinez Fischer said. “You can quantify the number of jurisdictions that are beginning to adopt these wage equality proposals, and maybe that can be another piece of evidence that comes back before the Legislature in 2017 for reconsideration.”
Republican opposition to a statewide minimum wage is backed by the powerful business lobby, which has argued that raising the minimum wage through government action is unsustainable for small businesses that then have to raise wages for all employees or reduce the number of positions available to keep up with wage hikes.
Will Newton, executive director of the Texas chapter of the National Federation of Independent Business, said setting the minimum wages is a local control issue that should depend on “prevailing wages” in each area of the state.
“Wages should be based on what the value is [locally],” Newton said.
State law preempts local governments from setting a city or county-wide minimum wage that could require the private sector to increase wages for the lowest-paid employees, but they can set wage requirements for private-sector contractors that do business with them and for local government employees.
This has left advocates for higher minimum wages to pursue local policies that require private companies that contract or receive financial incentives for local government to follow to same minimum wage standards.
Cities like Austin and San Antonio have set wage requirements for private companies that receive tax breaks or local government contracts by writing those living wage requirements into their contracts. And Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff has said he will move forward with a proposal requiring county contractors that hire custodial workers to pay $9.50 an hour with the goal of eventually getting them up to the county minimum wage.
Organizers hope these sorts of requirements will spur other employers to increase wages.
“Local economies are so varied easier and different that it’s easier to craft a solution that's workable for the local economy and constituency,” said Kurt Cadena-Mitchell, a lead organizer with the Austin Interfaith organization lobbying for minimum wage increases. “But certainly we know and it is our interest that wages increase for folks who aren’t only in the particular institution where the wage is being increased.”