Internet Explorer 11 is not supported

For optimal browsing, we recommend Chrome, Firefox or Safari browsers.

Kansas Governor Proposes Minimum Wage Hike Just for State Workers

Gov. Laura Kelly has proposed a new minimum wage, bringing 969 employees in the executive branch up to $15 hourly pay and giving all state workers an additional 5 percent raise. The minimum for non-state workers’ pay would remain at $7.25 an hour.

Kansas Gov. Laura Kelly wants a $15 minimum wage for state workers.

The Democratic governor’s new budget proposal includes funds to bring 969 employees in the executive branch up to the $15 mark and give all state workers an additional 5 percent raise. Her budget director cited the need to recruit and retain talent amid rising inflation.

But the higher minimum wage stops there.

The proposal won’t apply to those who work for state government contractors and Kelly has been clear she isn’t seeking to raise Kansas’ overall minimum wage – $7.25 per hour for the past 15 years.

“I’m not gonna go there,” Kelly told The Star last week when asked whether she would support a $15 statewide minimum wage. “I have my responsibility and my authority that is with state employees and so I’m going to propose that the private sector needs to do what they need to do.”

Lawmakers have been receptive to Kelly’s wage proposal for state employees, but the plan appears unlikely to spur action for all workers across the state. Even as Kansas is surrounded on three sides by states with minimum wages above the federal floor, the Democratic governor and the Republican-controlled Legislature have not prioritized a statewide minimum wage increase.

As of Jan. 1, the minimum wage in Missouri is now $12.30, more than $5 higher than Kansas.

Rep. Troy Waymaster, a Republican who chairs the House Appropriations Committee, indicated an openness to raising the minimum wage for state employees, but closed the door on a wider change.

“We’re not going to be changing the overall statute for private minimum wage requirements, but it’s obviously something that we need to address in regards to our state employees,” Waymaster, of Bunker Hill, told reporters.

Rep. Rui Xu, a Westwood Democrat, has introduced bills to increase the minimum wage for several years. He’s heard nothing but crickets.

“I think you would have to see really, really significant workforce shortages to see a movement on minimum wage,” Xu said. However, he noted, Kansas faced a severe workforce shortage last year and Kansas’ minimum wage stayed stagnant.

Kansas is one of 20 states whose minimum wage is the same or lower than the national minimum of $7.25, according to the U.S. Department of Labor. Still, the Legislature has not had a significant debate on the topic in years.

Jeremy Hill, director of the Center for Economic Development and Business Research at Wichita State University, said the low minimum wage creates challenges in the state’s labor market, encouraging families to move to where they’ll be paid more. Over the years, he said, Kansas’ average wages compared to other states have only fallen.

As of September, Kansas had 85,000 open jobs, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

“We don’t have a labor problem, we have a wage problem,” Hill said. “We have a lot more demand for labor than is available. Firms are saying, ‘I don’t understand, they’re all really low quality, they’re sitting at home.’ No, we’ve already tapped out that labor market and the price signal should be the wage.”

But the Legislature has historically opposed minimum wage increases, with lawmakers instead arguing market forces should drive wages.

“I’m not concerned about a minimum wage in Kansas because the free market is such that everyone is making more than the minimum wage and that’s kind of set by supply and demand,” Rep. Sean Tarwater, a Spring Hill Republican who chairs the House Commerce Committee.

‘Life Changing’ Raises

Kelly’s proposed pay increase would largely affect people who are cooks or doing laundry in state facilities, said Sarah LaFrenz, president of the Kansas Organization of State Employees, which represents executive branch employees.

Like many state workers, LaFrenz said, these individuals have been underpaid for far too long in part because the state’s minimum wage made any hourly wage above that appear sufficient. These raises will help ensure state workers are making enough to not have to depend on government programs, she said.

“Those kinds of things are life changing,” LaFrenz said of the bill. “That’s the difference with like being able to pay a light bill or being able to keep your home a few degrees warmer.”

Sen. Rick Billinger, a Goodland Republican who chairs the Senate Ways and Means Committee, said the increase was reasonable given the high inflation over the past years. A paycheck, he said, simply doesn’t go as far.

“We have to give our state employees fair pay because they’re dealing with those issues,” Billinger said. “And we need to stay competitive, we lose good people all the time because they’ve had an opportunity for advancement in private industry.”

But proponents of increased minimum wage for all workers say that the same rationale applies to the statewide minimum, especially in areas like Kansas City where workers can hop state lines for more pay.

“We have a lot of open but unfilled positions in the state and I think one way that we can fill those positions is by paying a living wage,” said Sen. Ethan Corson, a Fairway Democrat who has sponsored legislation to raise the minimum wage to $16 over several years.

The conversation around higher wages for state workers, LaFrenz said, could spark broader conversations about the cost of living, and the role the state’s minimum wage plays.

“A rising tide lifts all boats,” LaFrenz said. “I think that positive change like this, and like other things that we’re discussing currently can’t help but be positive for other working people throughout the state.”

©2024 The Kansas City Star. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.
TNS delivers daily news service and syndicated premium content to more than 2,000 media and digital information publishers.
From Our Partners