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State lawmakers fighting Twin Cities labor measures

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Protesters chant before the council meeting.
Protesters chant before the Minneapolis City Council meeting on Aug. 3, 2016, before discussion of a citywide $15/hour minimum wage.
Christopher Juhn for MPR News 2016

The campaign for higher minimum wages and sick leave in the state's two largest cities is getting some pushback from lawmakers at the Capitol. 

Both the House and Senate are weighing so-called pre-emption measures that could block local initiatives like the sick leave mandate in Minneapolis and St. Paul.

The Minneapolis sick leave ordinance is already subject to a court challenge. Starting this week, Republicans at the Capitol are weighing a ban on such local employment initiatives.

Rep. Pat Garofalo, R-Farmington, is sponsoring the bill in the House. He said people looking to change the employment landscape in Minnesota haven't made much headway statewide and are instead trying to work their way up from the local level.

"On the left, you have people calling for $15-, $20-an-hour minimum wages. And then on the right, people calling for individual cities to be right to work, where labor laws wouldn't apply," he said. 

His "Uniform State Labor Standards" bill would strike down local employment regulation and leave it exclusively to the Legislature and governor. It's scheduled to get an initial hearing Thursday, and it already has at least three DFL co-sponsors.  

Sen. Jeremy Miller, R-Winona, is planning a companion bill in the Senate. His family runs a scrap and recycling firm, and he said he doesn't want to see small businesses having to sort through what could be a virtual jigsaw puzzle of employment jurisdictions.

"Minnesota has 853 cities in 87 counties. As you can imagine having different rules and regulations related to labor standards from city to city creates a very complex and complicated situation for businesses," he said. "Especially small businesses."

With Republicans in control of both the House and Senate, it seems likely that some kind of pre-emption measure may wind up on Gov. Mark Dayton's desk this spring.

Dayton did sign a statewide minimum wage increase in 2014, raising the rate this year to $7.75 an hour for small employers, new employees, youth and some work visa holders. The rate is $9.50 an hour for large employers. The law includes an inflation adjustment going forward, starting in 2018.

The governor said he's willing to talk about pre-emption this session, but with a catch. He talked about the issue during a recent business forum.

"The way it's being proposed now, it's just a one-sided proposal benefiting businesses, and I would not support that," Dayton said. "But I would be willing to look at a balanced bill that includes issues like the current minimum wage and family sick leave around the state that would benefit workers as well as employers."

But advocates for low-wage workers say they're going to fight the measure, even if a deal might boost the existing minimum wage or increase enforcement against employers that don't pay their workers what they're owed, which they call "wage theft."

Ginger Jentzen, who led the 15 Now Minnesota minimum wage campaign, said local ordinances — particularly for big employment centers like Minneapolis and St. Paul — are too big a bargaining chip to give up.

"It's the trend across the whole country. When our big cities lead, a lot of the rest of the city can follow," she said. "As we saw with the smoking ban, or in discussions about plastic bag bans, the sky doesn't fall. This isn't the apocalypse."

Editor's note (Feb. 1, 2017): An earlier version of this story was unclear on the levels of minimum wage in the state of Minnesota: $9.50 an hour for large employers and $7.75 for small employers. The story has been updated to clarify.