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St. Joseph Families Await the Minimum Wage Hike

March 26, 1990

ST. JOSEPH, Mo. (AP) _ A sign outside this red-bricked town along the Missouri River proudly proclaims it’s the place where the Pony Express began and Jesse James ended.

But empty warehouses, vacant storefronts and quiet rail yards are grim reminders that the glory days for St. Joseph, like many towns in the manufacturing Midwest, are long past.

For residents with few skills, the only jobs around are those paying minimum wage or just above. Hundreds of high-paying jobs vanished when meat packing plants closed and the farm crisis set in.

Those scraping by at the bottom of the wage scale have been looking forward to April 1, when the minimum wage goes up 45 cents an hour, from $3.35 to $3.80. It’s the first such hike for the working poor since 1981.

″It doesn’t sound like much, really, but it would help us out,″ said Diane Fanning, who supports an 8-year-old daughter on a $4.10-an-hour job making beds and doing other chores at a nursing home.

Her employer, like businesses across the country that pay above $3.80 an hour, is faced with the dilemma of whether to provide raises to rival the hike in the minimum wage.

″I know how to stretch a penny; I have to. But there’s not much money to do anything right now, not for the extras, anyway. It would let us maybe go do something once in a while,″ Fanning said of a 45-cent raise that would translate into about $18 more a week. She now takes home around $140 a week, she said.

Under the measure passed by Congress last year, the 4 million Americans who make the minimum wage will see the hourly rate go to $4.25 on April 1, 1991. It also establishes a ″training wage″ for teen-agers first entering the work force, which will be $3.35 an hour this year and $3.61 an hour in 1991.

Had the minimum wage kept pace with inflation since 1981, it would have been $4.59 an hour in 1989 and $5.28 an hour by 1992, supporters said.

″I’ve been waiting on this for a long time,″ said Tim Turrieta, another nurse’s aide at the Carriage Square Health Care Center. ″Our wages have been holding steady, but the economy’s been running away. It’s only fair that we get something.″

″It’s going to let you buy that pair of shoes you’ve been looking at but haven’t been able to afford,″ Turrieta said.

But to others, the increase is so long overdue it won’t have much impact. Low-wage workers also fear bigger paychecks might translate into higher grocery and clothing prices.

″After they raise it to where a man can start to make it, I’m afraid the economy and the price of everything else will just take off too,″ said Greg Fairchild, who helps support four children on a $3.60-an-hour cook’s job at Burger King. Without his wife’s $865-a-month take home pay as a psychiatric aide, his family wouldn’t make it, he said.

Though St. Joseph’s downtown business district has suffered in recent years, its three-mile strip of fast food and retail establishments - known as the Belt - has continued to grow.

The good paying jobs in St. Joseph, a town of 76,000 located 50 miles north of Kansas City, are at the lone meat packing plant left in town, a wire rope manufacturer, the Mead paper plant and Quaker Oats.

″Being in the heart of the farm belt, we suffered with the agriculture crisis, but things have improved significantly,″ said Alan Kenyon, president of the area’s Chamber of Commerce.

He noted that a pet food firm is opening a test facility soon and that more than 30 stores have just been added to the expanded shopping mall at the edge of town. Unemployment posted a relatively low 5.5 percent rate last year, the same level as the entire state. One county in southeast Missouri suffered a 15 percent jobless rate.

Merchants here paying low wages don’t think workers will get much benefit from a few more nickels an hour.

″The dollars just pass from one hand to another. Who’s really gained from all of it?″ said Clara Lash, who runs the 120-bed facility where Fanning and Turrieta work.

Nina Casey, who owns the Sav-On Unclaimed Merchandise and Furniture store out on the Belt, said the increase won’t hurt her profit margin.

″It’s no skin off our nose, because we’ll just raise the prices to match it,″ Casey said. ″Your bottom line has to stay the same. Any third-grader can tell you that. So how does their (minimum wage workers’) purchasing power increase any?″

She contends nearly all of those workers at the tail end of the wage scale are using the job as a second income.

″No one’s making a living off the minimum wage. They can’t make a living at $4 an hour either,″ Ms. Casey said.

Lash said her ability to pay matching 45-cent raises will depend on whether Medicaid increases its reimbursement rates.

″I can’t make promises to my staff that they’re going to get the ripple effect,″ she said. ″I’d love to give it to them. They’re doing a job here that nobody else wants to do.″

Larry Huston, president of the AFL-CIO’s northwest Missouri region, said the minimum wage will still be too low.

″Everybody deserves a livable wage. I wouldn’t call $3.35 an hour that - or $3.80, for that matter,″ Huston said. ″I don’t know how in the world people get by on that, God bless ’em. They must be better skimpers than me.″

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