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Appearing at the 2013 Minnesota State Fair, Jessica English makes a plea to raise the state minimum wage. Looking on is state Rep. Ryan Winkler of Golden Valley, sponsor of a bill to increase the wage to $9.50. (Forum News Service photo by Don Davis)

Woman fights 'land of minimum wage'

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FALCON HEIGHTS, Minn. -- Jessica English is a face of a newly revived effort to raise Minnesota's minimum wage.

She earned minimum wage while working in rural western Minnesota, places such as Fergus Falls, Ortonville and Kerkhoven. A case worker called it the "land of the minimum wage."

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Now, the 35-year-old divorced mother said she faces losing custody of her four daughters, ages 6 to 15, because she earned so little, even though her finances improved a bit since moving to St. Paul.

"I couldn't eat three meals a day," she said, if she wanted to feed her girls. "I lost a lot of weight and lost a lot of faith in human beings."

Her story is one that Minnesotans may hear a lot in coming months.

Earlier this year, the Democratic-controlled Minnesota Legislature failed to raise the minimum wage, even though most Democrats support it. Labor and other groups in a coalition for the cause told a Minnesota State Fair audience that raising the wage must be a priority.

A sign atop the labor pavilion proclaimed: "Raise the wage! $9.50 by 2015."

The state current minimum wage is $6.15 an hour, but most Minnesota jobs fall under the federal $7.25 wage.

The state House passed the higher wage this year, but senators balked.

In a state fair appearance, Senate Majority Leader Tom Bakk, DFL-Cook, a former union member and official, said he supports a higher wage. But, he added, there are complications that need to be resolved.

One concern he expressed, and a reason he put the brakes on the 2013 wage-increase bill, is that forcing higher wages on nursing homes could put them out of business.

"Nursing homes can't raise the price of their product," he said, and unless state payments go up, wages should not be forced up.

Bakk's other major issue is that cities along state borders, such as in his Senate district, are next to states with lower minimum wages.

Duluth restaurants, for instance, already pay more than those nearby in Wisconsin, he said.

"I just don't believe the (Senate) votes are there for where the House is at," he said, noting that the House does not provide protections for nursing homes and border communities.

Once the disagreements are worked out, Bakk said, he would favor an automatic wage increase, such as establishing the state wage 50 cents an hour higher than the federal level.

The House's main minimum-wage-increase advocate is Rep. Ryan Winkler, DFL-Golden Valley, who said the issue Minnesotans must decide is what kind of state they want.

Minnesota AFL-CIO President Shar Knutson likened the minimum wage effort to one that produced a law allowing gay marriages. She said that minimum wages are being discussed throughout the state and soon most Minnesotans will agree to a higher wage.

The state minimum wage "is not close to being enough," she said.

At $9.50 an hour, workers would put $470 million more a year into the state economy, Knutson said. About 360,000 workers now earn minimum wage.

Winkler said that studies show "there is no economic downside" to raising the wage.

But Republicans say a higher minimum wage would hurt the economy.

"When you raise the minimum wage, you raise labor costs that lead to one of several things: raising prices on goods and services, reducing hours for staff or layoffs for workers," Rep. Gary Dahms, R-Redwood Falls, said.

House Minority Leader Kurt Daudt, R-Crown, said that everyone agrees low- and middle-income Minnesotans earn too little.

"The honest solution to that problem is to grow jobs with higher take-home pay in Minnesota," Daudt said.

English did not delve into the politics of minimum wage. Instead, she said she was forced out of rural Minnesota in an effort to make more money.

"Moving down here is much better for me and my girls," English said.

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Don Davis
Don Davis has been the Forum Communications Minnesota Capitol Bureau chief since 2001, covering state government and politics for two dozen newspapers in the state. Don also blogs at Capital Chatter on Areavoices.
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