Many Berkeley business owners say they are still concerned about whether they would be able to survive a new minimum wage plan under consideration by the city. Photo: Postcard PR
The Berkeley Chamber of Commerce would like to have a two-track system which would give small businesses, such as restaurants, more time to raise the minimum wage. Photo: Postcard PR

After a heated debate, the Berkeley City Council voted 6-3 Tuesday night to place a measure on the November ballot that would raise the minimum wage to $15 in 2019. A citizens’ ballot initiative that would raise the minimum wage to $15 next year will also be on the ballot.

“What we’re proposing is a progressive and aggressive approach to getting to $15,” said Councilman Laurie Capitelli. “It gets us to $15 four years ahead of the SEIU state proposal.”

Councilman Jesse Arreguín scoffed at Capitelli’s description of the measure as “progressive,” saying that Berkeley had lagged behind neighboring cities on the minimum wage. That’s what had driven citizen groups to launch their initiative, he said.

“They didn’t have faith in this council majority to do the right thing,” Arreguín said. “The fact that we’ve got to the point of two competing measures on the ballot is a real failure of leadership by this council.”

The citizen initiative raises the minimum wage to $15 next year, and then increases it annually by CPI plus 3% until it reaches $16.37 in 2016 dollars (after that, increases are by CPI). It also mandates a minimum 72 hours of paid sick leave each year. It was organized by a coalition of unions, politicians and community activists, under the banner Berkeley for Working Families. The council measure is more gradual in its increases and mandates 48 hours of paid sick leave. 

Source: Lori Droste (Updated July 2016)
Click to view this chart and a related chart larger. Source: Lori Droste (Updated July 2016)

“Working families in Berkeley need help now, not three years from now,” said David Fielder, who spoke during public comments at the City Council meeting.

“We all support $15. We need to get there,” said John Caner, director of the Downtown Berkeley Association. “But small businesses need more time. Let’s remember where we come from. We’re talking about a 50% increase in four years on the city measure and 50% increase in two years with the citizen measure to a business’ largest cost. We’re going to lose small businesses and we’re going to cut back hours.”

Jeff Gray, owner of metal fabricators Graysix in West Berkeley, said the rapid increase would be very difficult for his 14-employee business. He’d have to raise his monthly payroll, he said, from $24,000 to $32,000 to retain staff.

“Nobody is opposed to it, but we can’t do it so fast,” Gray told Berkeleyside. “We need more time.”

“I’m really disappointed that this is what we’re looking at as an alternative to the citizens’ initiative,” said Kirsten MacDonald, CEO, Berkeley Chamber of Commerce. “The voice for businesses needs to be acknowledged. It’s not fair to close this equity gap on the backs of businesses.”

MacDonald said she wanted Berkeley to have a two-track system which would give small businesses more time to raise the minimum wage.

caption goes here
Councilmember Lori Droste: “I do think it’s a progressive measure.” Photo: Emilie Raguso
Councilmember Lori Droste: “I do think it’s a progressive measure.” Photo: Emilie Raguso

Councilwoman Lori Droste pointed to a table she had created from data supplied by the UC Berkeley Labor Center (see above). The council measure would be the sixth fastest in the nation to reach $15, she said. Oakland and Richmond, she said, only reach $15 in 2023.

“I do think it’s a progressive measure,” Droste said.

Councilwoman Susan Wengraf said she had spoken frequently in recent years with small business owners who were worried about the speed of increases.

“They are feeling very threatened by the speed at which the minimum wage is being raised,” Wengraf said. “We’re a town of small businesses. We’re not Emeryville; we’re not a big-box town. I think the measure is very balanced.”

A number of council members and public commenters said they were concerned about two rival ballot measures in November.

“I’m concerned about the ballot this November being confusing for voters,” said EBMUD director Andy Katz. “Don’t have two measures on the ballot.”

“I cannot think of a time when Berkeley voters had two competing measures and it had a good result,” said Councilman Kriss Worthington.

Arreguín said the council measure was “a cynical attempt to confuse the voters.”

Capitelli said that, for him, it was the citizen initiative that was “cynical.”

“It was designed knowing it was too aggressive, knowing that it would harm small businesses,” Capitelli said. The intent, he said, was to force the city to respond with an alternative.

Worthington, supported by Arreguín and councilman Max Anderson, moved that the City Council pass the council measure as an ordinance, rather than a ballot measure. That proposal was defeated 6-3.

“The way to confuse voters is for us to pass this tonight and then go out to campaign to vote no” on the citizen initiative, Capitelli said.

Berkeleyans to be asked to accelerate $15 minimum wage (04.21.16)
City Council votes to phase in minimum wage increases (11.12.15)
Merchants: New minimum wage proposal would ‘decimate’ businesses (11.09.15)
Berkeley Council puts off minimum wage vote to Nov. 10 (09.16.15)
Berkeley Council to consider $19 minimum wage (09.14.15)
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)
Berkeley officials hold off on minimum wage task force (06.04.14)
Berkeley minimum wage plan passed, new initiatives loom (05.21.14)

Do you rely on Berkeleyside for your local news? You can support independent local journalism by becoming a Berkeleyside member. You can choose either a monthly payment or a one-time donation.

Avatar photo

Lance Knobel (Berkeleyside co-founder) has been a journalist for nearly 40 years. Much of his career was in business journalism. He was editor-in-chief of both Management Today, the leading business magazine...