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The Fight Over Louisville's Minimum Wage is Bigger Than the City

Minimum wage increase supporters at a recent Metro Council meeting.
Minimum wage increase supporters at a recent Metro Council meeting.

Industry groups from around the state filed a lawsuit last week aimed at stopping Louisville’s minimum wage ordinance from going into effect. And the results of that lawsuit could affect whether other Kentucky local governments have the authority to pass minimum wage hikes or other work-related ordinances, a Kentucky employment attorney says.

Louisville Metro Council passed an ordinance in December that raises the minimum wage in the city to $9 an hour by July 2017. The ordinance gets phased-in starting July 1, 2015.

Ahead of that first raise, the Kentucky Restaurant Association, the Kentucky Retail Federation and Packaging Unlimited in Louisville, filed a lawsuit in Jefferson Circuit Court asking a judge to stop the ordinance from going into effect and to settle a legal question over whether the council had the authority to raise wages in the first place.

Brent Baughman, an attorney representing the industry groups, said the metro government doesn’t have the legal authority to set a separate minimum wage higher than the one established by state law.

The county’s lawyer, however, has a different opinion. Last August, Jefferson County Attorney Mike O'Connell told council members Kentucky has no law explicitly prohibiting them from adopting a minimum wage ordinance.

That’s why Baughman said it’s time for a court to weigh-in.

“Unlike other litigation, this is a pure question of law for a court to decide,” Baughman said.

And that decision could have some broad implications.

Mackenzie Cantrell, an employment attorney with the Kentucky Equal Justice Center, said who the judge sides with could decide the fate of other minimum wage fights throughout the state.

Lexington officials, for example, are set to consider a minimum wage ordinance this year.

Cantrell said the ruling could also decide whether local governments in the state have the authority to pass all sorts of ordinances.

“There is a lot of movement going on in cities right now to change laws where the state has failed to pass laws like right to work or minimum wage laws,” she explained. “So, the impact of a case like this is broader than minimum wage.”

Cantrell’s group has been keeping an eye on the city’s minimum wage ordinance. She has previously told council members that in the absence of a law explicitly pre-empting local government from passing a minimum wage ordinance, the county has the right to set its own laws.

Cantrell said there is no set date for when a judge can make a ruling on this issue.

Unless the judge grants industry groups an injunction against the law, the minimum wage ordinance is still set to kick in July 1.