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Oklahoma governor signs law barring cities from raising minimum wage

Experts say pre-emption measures ideologically motivated, aimed at thwarting improved labor standards on state level

Cities across Oklahoma have been barred from setting mandatory minimum wage, vacation or sick-day requirements under a bill signed into law this week by Gov. Mary Fallin.

Critics of the bill say it specifically targets Oklahoma City, where an initiative is underway to establish a citywide minimum wage higher than the current federal requirement of $7.25 an hour. Organizers have been gathering signatures on a petition to support raising the city's minimum $10.10 – a rate currently being advocated by President Barack Obama on the national level.

David Slain, the lawyer who wrote the petition, said he is disappointed that the state’s legislature "would vote in such a way to take the right of the people to decide minimum wage." He said the grass-roots effort would continue, with hopes of getting 4,000 signature by the end of April. A total of 80,000 are needed to bring the initiative to a statewide vote.

After the governor signed the law on Monday, her office released a statement that said raising the minimum wage is not an effective way to bring people out of poverty.

"Most minimum-wage workers are young, single people working part-time or entry-level jobs," Fallin said. "Many are high school or college students living with their parents in middle-class families."

Yet numerous studies have called this an untrue stereotype. It is a "common myth that very low-wage workers – workers who would see a raise if the minimum wage were increased – are mostly teenagers," according to a recent report from the Economic Policy Institute

Nearly 90 percent of workers who would be impacted by an increase in the federal minimum wage are older than 20, while the average age is 35, the institute said. It added that more than a quarter have children to support and more than half work full time.

Supporters of the ban have also argued that it will help local businesses. Oklahoma state Rep. Randy Grau, R-Edmond, who carried the bill in the House, argued that "an artificial raise in the minimum wage could derail local economies in a matter of months."

Sen. Dan Newberry, R-Tulsa, the Senate co-author of the measure, said it provides a safer business environment that will allow Oklahoma to remain economically competitive and see continued job growth.

‘Gateway’ wage increases

Many analysts say such pre-emptive measures to block cities from raising minimum wage are often ideologically motivated.

An increase at the local level is a "gateway" toward improved labor standards for the rest of the state, according to Jack Temple, policy analyst at the National Employment Law Project.

“Pre-emption bills like Oklahoma’s block cities from passing higher wage standards in order to prevent momentum for passing higher wage standards on a state-wide level,” Temple said.

In some states where cities have passed local minimum wage hikes, states have indeed moved to follow with their own increases.  In California for example, San Francisco and San Jose raised the local minimum wage in 2012.  The state followed their lead the next year.

Maryland issued a minimum wage increase this week, a move that came after local jurisdictions Montgomery and Prince George passed similar measures in 2013.

Al Jazeera and wire services.  Amel Ahmed contributed to this report.

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