Labor advocates and workers rallied outside Tuesday night’s Berkeley City Council meeting in favor of increasing the minimum wage. Photo: Mary Flaherty
Labor advocates and workers rallied outside Tuesday night’s Berkeley City Council meeting in favor of increasing the minimum wage. Photo: Mary Flaherty

The Berkeley City Council voted late Tuesday night to hold off on a decision about a new minimum wage schedule, proposed by the city’s Labor Commission, that could increase the wage to $19 by 2020.

Seven council members voted in favor of the postponement, while Councilman Max Anderson and Councilman Jesse Arreguín abstained, after more than an hour of public comment. Approximately 31 people told council that workers cannot afford to wait for an increase, and about a dozen local business owners or their supporters asked the city to take more time to make sure their position is included in any decision to change the existing minimum wage law.

Read previous coverage of the minimum wage debate in Berkeley.

Council voted last year to increase the minimum wage annually to $12.53 by October 2016. The Labor Commission asked council to take a more aggressive approach, raising the minimum wage to $13 at that time, followed by annual increases through 2020 up to $19.

The Labor Commission has recommended the inclusion of paid sick leave and other factors in its proposal to make Berkeley’s minimum wage a living wage for workers who are struggling to keep up with the rising cost of living in the Bay Area. 

Advocates for increasing the minimum wage said nearly all cities that have increased it have seen corresponding increases in consumer spending that have helped boost the economy overall. Some pointed out that a worker making minimum wage in Berkeley would have to work 63 hours to afford “Berkeley rents.” One speaker said some Berkeley rents have increased $400-$1,000 in the past year, forcing local residents to crowd six to eight tenants into units to afford them.

“The cost of living simply exceeds what a minimum wage job can get you,” Andy Katz told council. “We need to do better in Berkeley.”

Nicky Gonzalez Yuen told council about a woman he knows who is working four separate jobs to afford to live in a 60-square-foot room in Berkeley.

“I think it’s time for us to end that system,” he said. “I think it’s time for us to be Berkeley, and not be the followers who tag along.”

Currently, the minimum wage is set at $10, and is scheduled to increase to $11 in October, as per the ordinance adopted by council last year.

Community members stayed late to weigh in on a proposal to increase the minimum wage. Photo: Emilie Raguso
Community members stayed late to weigh in on a proposal to increase the minimum wage. Photo: Emilie Raguso

Business owners and their supporters said they are still grappling to get a handle on those increases, as well as a new state law requiring paid sick leave for workers. (See a letter from the Elmwood merchants association outlining some of those concerns.) A representative of Spenger’s Fresh Fish Grotto said the Labor Commission’s proposed increases would cause many local businesses to close.

“We will not survive. We will close our doors,” he said. “I suspect many other businesses will do the same.”

Dorothée Mitrani, owner of La Note and Café Clem, said she was about to close one of her businesses because of increasing costs related to labor. She asked council to slow down and analyze the impacts of the existing legislation before forging ahead.

“I can’t survive,” she told council. “It’s not about not paying people. It’s about allowing us to run our small businesses so we can pay these people.”

Labor advocates said businesses that cannot afford to pay a living wage do not have sustainable models, and should be replaced with other businesses that can. Advocates for the business community countered that Berkeley’s small businesses are unique and should receive more consideration than, for example, larger corporate enterprises that can more easily absorb wage increases.

According to the city manager, 60% of the businesses in Berkeley are small businesses.

A comparison of current minimum wage laws in the Bay Area. (See page 16 of the staff report for more detail.) Source: City of Berkeley

Ultimately, council voted to revisit the minimum wage proposal from the Labor Commission in a special meeting Nov. 10. Council pledged to hear the issue earlier in the evening so more members of the public could testify. Tuesday night’s discussion began at about 9:50 p.m., and community members testified repeatedly that dozens who had come to speak had gone home due to the lateness of the hour and responsibilities related to their jobs.

Mayor Tom Bates asked staff to come back Nov. 10 with language related to a sick leave ordinance. The Labor Commission recommended mandatory sick leave in its minimum wage proposal, while city staff said council might want to tackle that issue as a separate ordinance, which was the approach San Francisco took.

Councilman Arreguín and many attendees said council should not wait to take up the issue. They said delaying the vote would be harmful to workers, and said fast, decisive action would be a better approach. Councilman Anderson said business owners should have participated in the Labor Commission’s discussions over the past year rather than waiting until Tuesday night to ask for a different process.

Members of the business community have said they did not feel heard during the Labor Commission’s process, due to the make-up of that panel, which they said does not include any local business owners.

The Labor Commission wage proposal, compared to those of several Bay Area cities. Source: City of Berkeley

Councilwoman Lori Droste and others said more conversation was needed before an informed decision could be made. She said she would like to hear more input from the business community regarding the proposal. Droste said asking for more analysis was a legitimate request, not a delay tactic.

“We’re not punting it,” she told the crowd. “I really think this merits significant dialogue. That’s what we owe to our community.”

Councilman Kriss Worthington put forward an alternate motion that would have increased Berkeley’s minimum wage to $15 by 2018, but his motion failed due to lack of support.

Mayor Bates said he would like to see Berkeley get to a $15 minimum wage “in a relatively short time,” but he said it would be important to keep businesses that are expected to pay those wages in operation.

“We need to look at the goose that lays the eggs,” Bates said. “We need to get more points of view, examine what’s happening elsewhere, and think about all these issues. These issues are not simple.”

Berkeley council on minimum wage, crime report, tobacco sales limits, more (09.15.15)
Berkeley City Council to consider $19 minimum wage (09.14.15)
Op-ed: As an East Bay fast-food worker, I say we need $15 minimum wage and a union (06.02.15)
East Bay restaurants adapt to new minimum wage (05.19.15)
Robert Reich makes the case for $15 minimum wage (04.17.15)
‘Fight for 15’ protesters march in Berkeley, Oakland (04.15.15)
‘Fight for 15’ rallies planned for East Bay on April 15 (04.14.15)
Berkeley’s minimum wage is $10 starting today, Oct. 1 (10.01.14)
Berkeley sets new minimum wage; up to $12.53 by 2016 (06.27.14)
Op-ed: Minimum wage plan is raising bar too far, too fast (06.10.14)
Op-eds: 2 views on Berkeley’s minimum wage hike plan (06.09.14)
Berkeley officials hold off on minimum wage task force (06.04.14)
Berkeley minimum wage plan passed, new initiatives loom (05.21.14)

If you like the variety of news on Berkeleyside, you will like the variety of voices we present at Uncharted: The Berkeley Festival of Ideas. Early bird tickets with early bird prices are on sale through Sept. 20 for the festival in downtown Berkeley on Oct. 16-17. Click here to see the list of speakers.

[Editor’s note: The language explaining the vote tally, with seven in favor and two abstentions, was clarified after publication.]

Emilie Raguso (former senior editor, news) joined Berkeleyside in 2012 and covered politics, public safety and development until her departure in 2022. In 2017, Emilie was named Journalist...