Labor advocates and other supporters of a $15 minimum wage attended Tuesday night's council meeting in Berkeley. Photo: Emilie Raguso
Labor advocates and other supporters of a $15 minimum wage at a recent council meeting in Berkeley (file photo). Photo: Emilie Raguso

The Berkeley City Council voted unanimously Tuesday night to officially adopt the city’s new minimum wage ordinance, setting hourly pay on a course to reach $12.53 by October 2016.

The city’s new law will raise Berkeley’s minimum wage to $10 per hour this October, then to $11 after one year. A statewide increase to $9 per hour takes effect July 1.

The journey to reach a consensus on the new law has been far from straightforward. After a lengthy review dating back to last summer by the city’s Labor Commission, council has struggled since April over how to structure its minimum wage plan.

Read previous coverage of the minimum wage debate in Berkeley.

Council initially pledged to adopt a more aggressive increase, but backed off from that proposal after members of the local business community said it moved too fast and might lead to layoffs or closures.

Tuesday night, council approved the new minimum wage ordinance as part of its consent calendar. Little was said about the issue by council members or the public.

“Congratulations,” said Bates, who smiled after the vote. “We have a minimum wage in Berkeley. The second reading has been accomplished.”

Members of the public clapped loudly in support after his announcement.

Bates noted that, after three lengthy public hearings on the minimum wage, council voted unanimously to approve the new ordinance during its first and second readings.

Several council members said, last month, they wished the plan went further. And, beyond the dais, the law also has numerous critics among both business owners and labor advocates. Business owners have expressed concerns about whether they will be able to survive the increase, while labor advocates have said the plan doesn’t go far enough.

Labor advocates have said that a plan to get to $15 an hour, with an annual cost of living adjustment, and paid vacation and sick leave, would be more fair to workers.

But, despite the criticisms, a least some advocates expressed optimism this week about the vote.

“We finally won!” wrote Harry Brill in an opinion piece on Wednesday. Brill identified himself as one of the organizers of the campaign to increase the minimum wage in Berkeley. “Although it is certainly not a living wage, it will be among the highest in the nation.”

Business community still nervous

Meanwhile, members of the business community who are worried about how they will fare under the new law recently formed a group called the Berkeley Small Business Alliance and spoke out about the plan.

“It is simply raising the bar too far, too fast,” members of the group wrote in an op-ed on Berkeleyside. “This proposal as it stands may have too many unintended consequences. Berkeley’s small businesses may not have time to course correct. Many small businesses whose major competitors are online retailers cannot raise prices and will be forced to move to another city or close entirely.”

The group has taken issue with Berkeley’s process to this point, said the new law will cost the city too much, criticized the lack of existing data about how the law will impact local businesses, and more. Earlier this month, its members asked the city to first conduct a study to learn more about the local business climate before voting on the new law, but that campaign was unsuccessful.

The group does not identify its members, which has drawn criticism from other local community members. Representatives from the group said they took that approach as a protective measure. After early meetings when business owners of popular book shops and restaurants spoke out candidly about their worries, many said they were then targeted as anti-labor for raising questions.

A broader context

Berkeley’s effort to raise the minimum wage is among many similar undertakings around the state and country. The federal minimum wage is $7.25 an hour, which many say is much too low and has been been essentially flat for decades. According to USA Today, “a handful of cities, and nearly two dozen states” have taken on the challenge to increase wages rather than wait for a decision at the federal level.

California is one of those states, with the July increase to $9 and another increase, to $10 in 2016, already scheduled. It is the first time the state minimum wage is set to go up in six years, according to media reports. Further hikes have met with resistance, however. A California Assembly panel narrowly rejected a bill Wednesday that aimed to raise the state’s minimum wage to $13 an hour by 2017.

San Jose raised its minimum wage to $10 in 2013, then to $10.15 in January. Richmond has adopted a plan to get to $12.30 by 2017. And San Francisco and Oakland are both hammering out their own proposals, which are set to go before voters in November. San Francisco already has the highest minimum wage in the nation, according to NBC, at $10.74 an hour.

Task force decision coming up

In Berkeley, too, the discussion is far from over. At its July 1 meeting, council plans to consider the creation of a task force to review the minimum wage ordinance. The group could study how the city might proceed after 2016, and look at issues such as sick leave, potential exemptions for certain types of employers and other complexities.

The panel could also potentially investigate how a regional minimum wage might work and whether the new ordinance needs to be modified. East Bay mayors are working together on a proposal from Mayor Tom Bates to adopt a minimum wage of $12.82 per hour by 2017.

Based on past comments by city officials, exactly how Berkeley’s task force will work, and what it will look like, may be up for debate.

At its June 3 meeting, council members Laurie Capitelli, Jesse Arreguín and Kriss Worthington raised issues with the language of Mayor Tom Bates’ proposal for the endeavor.

Capitelli, along with members of the public, said he would like to see a larger group than what was proposed as a nine-person panel to bring in a broader range of perspectives and avoid a head-to-head battle between the most entrenched viewpoints.

Arreguín and Worthington said a clause of the proposal that would prohibit council members running for reelection from joining the task force would exclude what they described as the body’s most progressive voices.

Bates said he would be happy to reconsider both of those issues during future discussion about the group’s creation. His staff report for the July 1 meeting has not, however, been updated to reflect any changes.

Charles Siler is a summer intern at Berkeleyside. He grew up in the North Bay and now attends Tulane University in New Orleans. Emilie Raguso contributed additional reporting to this story.

Berkeley officials hold off on minimum wage task force (06.04.14)
Berkeley minimum wage plan passed, new initiatives loom (05.21.14)
Berkeley council boosts minimum wage, approves task force to look deeper (05.07.14)
Op-ed: No tip penalty — one fair minimum wage for all (05.05.14)
Berkeley could OK raised minimum wage plan this month (05.02.14)
Berkeley Mayor proposes East Bay minimum wage (04.22.14)
Berkeley Council hears minimum wage increase pleas (04.03.14)
Op-Ed: As a restaurant owner I question minimum wage process (07.02.13)
Minimum wage ‘tip credit’ idea gets cold shoulder (06.21.13)
Berkeley considers city-wide minimum wage hike

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