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California Cities Build Momentum on Minimum Wage Boosts

Pauline Bartolone/CALmatters
Lydia Flores rallies with her union, UFCW, for a new contract. Flores supports two teenage sons on $12.88 an hour as a cashier in Los Angeles.

Lydia Flores saves gas money by taking a two-hour train ride to and from her cashier job at a Los Angeles supermarket. She tells her teenage sons about another way the family can save on the cost of eggs.

“Eat it slow,” she tells them. “They gotta savor their eggs now.”

To stretch her dollars, Flores gets some food from churches. Her sons wear their uncle’s hand-me-downs. A couple of times a year, she’ll ask a local nonprofit to help pay a utility bill.

“You pay one bill and leave the other. And then, you’ll get the disconnection notice, and then you pay that bill, and then leave another bill.”

Earning $12.88 an hour, Flores supports her two sons on roughly $2,000 a month or less after taxes. That includes a Social Security check her younger son receives because of a developmental disability.

It’s stories like hers, of people who work full time and still struggle to meet basic needs, that have fueled groups such as Fight for $15 and the movement to raise wages.

California cities have heard their call.

California cities lead the charge to raise minimum wage

In the last three years, 15 of the 30 cities and counties nationwide that have voted to increase the minimum wage have been in California, according to the UC Berkeley Labor Center.

“California is a state that has made it very clear to cities and counties that they have the authority to pass a higher minimum wage,” said Laura Huizar, staff attorney for the National Employment Law Project, a Washington, D.C., nonprofit that publishes research about low-wage workers.

Huizar said some states, like Georgia and Texas, prohibit localities from passing minimum wage laws.

Other experts say a mix of politics and economics explain why half of the recent local increases have happened through California regional governments. Andrew Busch of the Rose Institute of State and Local Government at Claremont McKenna College said it’s the left-leaning politics and high cost of living in the state.

“Policymakers or voters are more receptive to an increased minimum wage because they see that it just costs a lot more to live in those places,” he said.

Leaders of the Fight for $15 movement say getting traction on the city level hasn’t necessarily been the focus of their campaign. It is one of many groups that organized to raise the minimum wage in Los Angeles. But leaders say their demonstrations have influenced New York State policymakers and employers.

“There’s all types of ways to get there, and I don’t think that the workers really care how they get there. They care that they have $15 so they can get out of poverty,” said Kendall Fells, organizing director for Fight for $15.

Nonetheless, actions by the California cities could prove influential.

California raised its minimum wage from $8 to $9 an hour in July 2014. The state will raise it again to $10 an hour in January 2016. Large cities in the Los Angeles and San Francisco metro areas have passed ordinances to raise their minimum wages to up to $15 an hour by 2020.

Busch said if enough cities adopt an increase, there may be a “psychological momentum” to adopt similar increases statewide.

“They might begin to make the argument that there are too many cities at risk of losing jobs to competitor cities, and the playing field needs to be leveled out,” Busch said.

Cities’ minimum wage movements may influence state actions

Indeed, state Sen. Mark Leno (D-San Francisco), who authored a bill this year to raise the minimum wage statewide to $13 with future adjustments for inflation, said higher wages in cities create an opportunity for state policy to make the marketplace fairer for competing businesses.

“Raising our state minimum wage to be a little closer to some of these higher city and county minimum wages would do that,” Leno said.

Furthermore, Leno said, if cities show that local wage increases don’t “kill jobs,” that would help proponents of the statewide measure.

But the wave of new local wage ordinances has California employers concerned. The California Business Roundtable hasn’t yet taken a stance on the statewide wage proposals, and says its members don’t employ many low-wage workers. But Robert Lapsley, president of the roundtable, said minimum wage decisions should happen at the state Capitol, with regional economic differences taken into account.

“How do you make good public policy if you’re doing it solely within one city when it’s going to have ripple effects throughout the entire region?” Lapsley asked.

While proponents of this year’s statewide legislation want to raise the minimum wage so that families of three or four people stay out of poverty, Lapsley argued that’s something the minimum wage was never intended to do.

“That’s the wrong debate,” he said. “It’s really about we have to be growing our jobs so that we have middle-class jobs.”

Instead, Lapsley said the business community wants to see the manufacturing sector grow to create more opportunities for Californians to transition out of lower-paying jobs.

The $13 minimum wage bill stalled in committee this year, but Leno said he will reignite the push in 2016. The wave of cities raising their minimum wages wasn’t the impetus for his effort, Leno said, but the local efforts “inspire and encourage” the statewide legislation.

Meanwhile, a couple of 2016 ballot proposals would set the state minimum wage at $15 an hour, one by 2020 and the other by 2021. Neither has yet qualified for the ballot. Busch said efforts to raise the wage at the local level may give those initiatives momentum, but backers will still need to show voters that the increase wouldn’t hurt the economy.

That $15 minimum wage in Los Angeles couldn’t come soon enough for Flores, who works in an area supermarket. When her pay is increased, she said, she could buy her two sons new clothes.

“Couldn’t they raise it right now?”

Copyright 2015 KQED