Sen. Mark Kelly (D., Ariz.) voted in support of a $15 national minimum wage increase last week, a marked change from his past business activities when he sat on the board of a company that fought to overturn a minimum wage law in the state of Nevada.
Kelly voted to include an amendment increasing the minimum wage to $15 in the COVID relief bill last Friday, breaking with his Arizona colleague, Democratic senator Kyrsten Sinema. He has said he supports the hike because it's "impossible" for people to live on lower incomes.
But Kelly's strong advocacy for the minimum wage hike appears to be at odds with his time as a paid board member at restaurant giant Landry's Inc. from 2013 to 2017. During that time, the company sued the state of Nevada in an attempt to overturn its wage mandate, which increased the minimum wage for employers who didn't provide state-approved employee health benefits.
The Nevada law, which was passed through a voter-approved amendment, set the state's minimum wage at $8.25 for employees who were not receiving employer-provided health benefits, and $7.25 for employees who did receive health benefits.
Landry's, whose restaurants include McCormick & Schmick's, Bubba Gump Shrimp, and Del Frisco's, argued that the law was unconstitutional, citing the financial and administrative burdens of the state's health benefits requirements and the higher wage penalty.
"Plaintiffs have been and continue to be damaged through being forced to incur substantial expense through payment of at least $8.25 per hour to Nevada employees as a result of [Nevada governor Brian Sandoval's] adoption, promulgation, and enforcement of preempted and unconstitutional laws," said the company in a 2016 complaint in the U.S. District Court for the District of Nevada.
In 2015, the Houston Restaurant Industry Coalition and other industry trade groups criticized Landry's wages after the company received tax breaks from the Houston city government, in a report on economic inequality in the city's restaurant industry.
"Landry's is one of the region's largest job creators, yet pays its service and restaurant workers low, if not poverty wages," the organizations wrote, adding that Landry's "logged revenue of $3 billion last year, has 60,000 employees, 10,750 in the Houston area alone."
A spokesman for Kelly told the Washington Free Beacon that the senator was not involved in any business decisions at Landry's and his job was limited to making speeches.
"Senator Kelly was on the board for a few years after he retired from NASA. During that time, he made appearances and gave speeches," said Kelly spokesman Jacob Peters. "He had no role in business decisions, including the one you reference."
Kelly's office declined to say how much he earned as a board member. Landry's did not respond to a request for comment.
Kelly listed his work for Landry's in his Senate financial disclosures but did not specify how much he earned during his four years as a board member. Landry's board members pocketed around $120,000 a year in compensation in 2009, according to the company's Securities and Exchange Commission filings that year, which were its final disclosures before it went private in 2010.
A 2015 National Association of Corporate Directors survey found that board members nationwide work an average of 248 hours per year, which means Kelly could have been earning around $483 an hour.
Kelly voiced his support for raising the minimum wage in February.
"I've spoken to folks that try to survive [on minimum wage]," said Kelly at a press conference. "It's impossible."
"I mean, you can't work 40 hours a week on minimum wage and raise a family and have a decent standard of living," he added. "The proposal is $15, that makes sense. The details of how we do this, when we do this. That all matters."
The measure—introduced by Sen. Bernie Sanders (I., Vt.) with significant support from the Democratic base—failed because of procedural hurdles and opposition from a bipartisan majority of senators, including Sinema.