November 19, 2017

Kansas City Public Library Raises Minimum Wage for Employees

Kansas City Public Library

As Missouri continues its two-year clash with its two largest cities over minimum wage regulations, Kansas City Public Library (KCPL) director R. Crosby Kemper III has taken matters into his own hands.

Kemper raised the minimum wage for part-time library employees to $10 an hour, with those who already made more than that getting an increase as well. “We’ve got a problem with low wage people being stuck in low wage jobs,” Kemper told LJ. “Libraries are like a lot of other public service institutions in that we’ve had low wage people over the years—but when we can afford to we should close the gap to the extent that we can.”

While the Missouri minimum wage of $7.70 still tops the federal rate of $7.25, both Kansas City and St. Louis—blue cities in a red state—enacted local municipal minimum wages by city ordinances in 2015. In September of that year, the Missouri legislature preempted those efforts by passing a law preventing any locality—cities, towns, or counties—from raising its local minimum wage above the state’s. In February 2017, St. Louis struck down the state law in Missouri Supreme Court, raising its wage floor to $10, only to have the state legislature pass a new preemption law that lowered rate to $7.70 again effective August 28.

Kansas City’s minimum wage rates saw a similar roller-coaster effect. On August 8, local voters took minimum wage regulations to the polls. Sixty-nine percent approved a ballot measure raising the minimum wage to $10, with annual increases of $1.25 an hour beginning in 2019 to reach $15 in 2022. The new rate took effect on August 24; four days later, the same state ruling that affected St. Louis returned Kansas City’s minimum wage to $7.70 as well.

An August 11 editorial in the Kansas City Star called on business owners to raise rates on their own initiative, and for consumers to patronize those businesses. More than 100 St. Louis businesses had done so in the face of the anticipated August rollback, encouraging local businesses to #SaveTheRaise.

Kemper took a look at the salaries of KCPL’s lower wage earners—one full-time and 22 part-time workers—mainly library aides who perform a variety of tasks from shelving to some desk work to facilities maintenance. Most earned more than the city’s minimum wage of $7.25 but less than $10.

When the library’s chief financial officer and head of human relations conferred with Kemper, he agreed that these workers’ hourly wages should be raised to $10. Anyone earning just above $10 an hour would be raised to $11, and those earning over $11 to $12. “It’s a question of fairness, rather than a statement about the minimum wage for everybody,” Kemper told LJ. The KCPL board gave its indirect approval, although it does not have direct jurisdiction over employee salary increases, and as library employees are not unionized, the wage hike went into effect immediately, on August 19.

DOING THE RIGHT THING

KCPL is in a good position to allocate the extra payroll money, noted Kemper. While for most of the past decade the city’s tax policies have put a cap on library revenue, FY18 looks to be a good one for the system. “We are looking at an increase in revenue this year, according to the assessor,” he said. “So we felt in light of that, this is a year when we could target some of our low wage employees for a special one-time increase. It’s a permanent increase, so it’s a floor for the future.” The library will continue to give yearly cost of living increases.

Kansas City housing costs require a single worker to earn around $15 an hour in order to spend less than 30 percent of their income on rent or a mortgage, Kemper explained. Although most of the KCPL employees affected are not the sole wage earners in their families, or have more than one job, he said, “raising [the library’s minimum wage] is the right thing to do, and we were able financially to raise it without changing what we would otherwise do in terms of hiring new employees, in terms of maintaining our technology and equipment, our computers, buying books, and doing the other things that we would do.”

Kemper himself is not in favor of minimum wage legislation, he told LJ, citing research showing that a legislated higher minimum wage can work against entry-level job seekers—employers needing to pay more tend to offset this by reducing services or stretching existing personnel rather than train incoming low-wage workers. But raising the library’s minimum hourly rate isn’t a contradiction, he stressed. “I certainly agree with the research but I think businesses are always able to raise their own minimum wages when it’s appropriate,” he told LJ. And in KCPL’s case, he said, it’s certainly appropriate.

Efforts toward raising the wage floor, both for Missouri and its cities, continues. Labor organizations began launched a statewide petition in August for a $12-an-hour goal, rather than the $15 called for in the national Fight for $15 movement, and a separate petition for Kansas City is also in circulation. Kansas City council has passed a resolution calling on city government and local businesses to implement higher wages.

“We haven’t heard what anybody else is doing,” noted Kemper in late August. “I thought there would be a rush to do this, and now we’re sitting out there as some kind of lone ranger. At least so far—I assume other people will do it. But we’re certainly the only one who did it publicly.”

Kemper added, “We’re just trying to do the right thing. This isn’t really special. Most libraries try to act this way, I think, with their employees and we don’t always have the money to do that. Fortunately this year we had enough money to do it, and it’s just really a question of doing the right thing. We have some very hardworking people who are not paid very well.”

Lisa Peet About Lisa Peet

Lisa Peet is Associate Editor, News for Library Journal.

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