The First Word
By Pahoua Hoffman
Shared experience leads to lasting solutions

In 2004, a middle-aged single mom (we’ll call her Joan) began work at a company that provided cleaning services to a large retailer in St. Paul. Her hourly wage for cleaning windows, sweeping floors, and performing other janitorial work was $7.25, with no benefits or overtime. Today, after working 14 years at the same company, she still has no benefits or overtime, works five hours a day, seven days a week, and makes $10.75 an hour (about $1.10 above the current minimum wage).

Joan still likes her job, in part because she can walk to work, but she does not believe her employer will raise her hourly wage to $15 unless its mandated by the city. According to the Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development’s online Cost of Living Tool, a single adult with two children would need to make $41.79 an hour to cover the cost of living in Ramsey County.

A few days after I talked to Joan, over 70 restaurant servers, who had gathered at a local pub for a listening session, made it clear that they did not want to see an hourly pay increase. Unlike Joan, they are tipped regularly and well. When those gratuities get added to their take-home pay, some make upward of $30 an hour. Their argument is that an increase in the minimum wage would sharply increase labor costs for restaurant owners and, without a tip credit or inclusion of tips, could lead to job cuts.

Why do these stories matter? They matter because—while data is essential to understanding the depth and breadth of an issue—for policymakers to make responsible decisions about what’s best for our communities, they need to understand the experiences and concerns of the people behind the statistics. In other words, every percentage point has a tale to tell.

These stories matter because every percentage point has an important, informative tale to tell.

Recently, the Citizens League agreed to help the City of St. Paul explore issues around a possible minimum wage increase. To help inform the process, our staff interviewed St. Paul employees like Joan. We also spoke with employers at companies of varying sizes, such as a small home health care business that would struggle to pay higher wages, especially since its Medicaid reimbursement rates are unlikely to change. And we talked to community members who are still on the fence, in search of answers to a variety of questions.

Is $15, which is the same wage leaders in Minneapolis are hoping to reach by 2022, the right rate for St. Paul? Would the city benefit, given that not all workers are residents or will remain residents? Would a higher paycheck give an unacceptable number of people too much money to qualify for public assistance but not enough to live without it?

We learn how and what to ask by surveying a multiplicity of voices and then listening. Eventually, we hope to edify city leaders, legislators, and the wider public. Our community engagement paradigm infuses all our work, whether it is an initiative aimed at aging adults, such as Calling Home, or a program designed to train a new generation of leaders, such as Capitol Pathways. Our magazine you  is no exception.

We launched Citizens League Voice to introduce our members to one another through the lens of their accomplishments, challenges, and concerns. We’re also hoping to encourage civil, informed dialogue about issues and ideas that impact Minnesotans who live in communities ranging from Northfield to Big Falls, St. Paul to Moorhead. And to make that happen, we need to hear your feedback, your opinions, and your stories.

So send us an email, comment on our Facebook page, or write us a letter. We want to know what moves you, what you want to learn more about, and where you’d like the state to go in the coming years. Get in touch. Get involved. Let’s work together.

PAHOUA HOFFMAN is executive director of the Citizens League. [email protected]