CA wrestles with minimum wage domino effect

Dollar Puzzle 02Forging ahead with plans to take minimum wages to new highs, California’s San Francisco Bay Area has touched off tit-for-tat increases, deepening fears that the region’s high cost of living has become a business-killer.

A growing dilemma

“Berkeley’s City Council approved a hike in June 2014 that will lift the minimum wage to $12.53 by next year,” the Los Angeles Times noted. “In November, voters in San Francisco and Oakland overwhelmingly approved increases, mumwith San Francisco on track to hit $15 before Seattle does. Oakland went up to $12.25 this year.” Then, last month, nearby Emeryville surpassed Berkeley and Oakland with a $14.44 wage; “Berkeley sent its labor commission back to the drawing board. The council next month is expected to take up a proposal that would add paid sick days, extend wage hikes until they hit $19 in 2020 and then add cost-of-living increases in perpetuity.”

Republished with permission by Cal Watchdog.com

The upshot for businesses has been mixed at best: although some employers have crafted clever strategies for adding more value for customers, others have worried the path is unsustainable. “The necessity of paying people a living wage in the Bay Area is clear, so it’s hard to argue against it, and it’s something I’m really proud to be able to try doing,” one pizzeria owner told the Times. “At the same time, I’m terrified of going out of business after 18 years.”

As big wage increases have been passed into law across California, business interests haven’t always been the only ones to pump the brakes. In Los Angeles, where the city minimum is a $15 wage, critics of the increases howled when labor advocates wound up asking for a waiver on the eve of its passage. “The exemption was left out of the law’s final version after criticism from the local chamber of commerce and business groups,” noted the Wall Street Journal. “But similar exemptions are included in at least three other Los Angeles laws, including a minimum wage for hotel workers approved last year.”

Recalibrating business

Although California has led the country in grappling with stagnant wages and rising costs of living, the turn toward higher minimum wages has touched off broad debates across the country. Hospitality businesses such as the hotel industry have faced a particular challenge as wages have climbed upward. For years, bar and restaurant groups have lobbied policymakers to think twice, warning that dramatically hiking wages would undermine their business models, which politicians and analysts have often built into their assumptions about jobs and economic health.

“The problem with the minimum-wage offensive is that it throws the accounting of the restaurant industry totally upside down,” as Harold Miller, a restaurant consultant currently serving as vice president for franchise development at Persona Pizzeria, told the Chicago Tribune.

In tech-forward areas with high costs of living and high rents, the threat to the hospitality business model has accelerated the shift toward increased automation and decreased employment rolls.

Stalling statewide

Some California employers have set out to recalibrate their work forces, hoping that a shift to more temporary workers could blunt the economic impact of wage increases. But the political impact of such a shift has also become a problem. Faced with criticism over differential treatment between contract and career employees, the University of California system offered a $15 “minimum wage” set to apply to thousands of contract workers on a private, not public, payroll.

UC unions were still left cold. “Private contract firms will still make as much as $10 an hour or more in profit off the labor of workers being denied the same wages as UC workers doing the same jobs,” wrote the president of the system’s largest employee union in the San Francisco Chronicle. “UC could choose to send a different message by supporting SB376,” she argued, “legislation that would guarantee the employees of UC contractors equal pay as career employees doing the same work.” That bill was authored this spring by state Sen. Ricardo Lara, D-Bell Gardens.

But the latest Golden State bellwether, a bill creating a statewide $13 wage introduced by state Sen. Mark Leno, D-San Francisco, could signal that the minimum wage wave may be cresting. As the Sacramento Business Journal observed, Leno’s effort “moved farther than it did last year, but the bill’s fate is far from assured.” Although Gov. Jerry Brown has “proposed to tackle income inequality this year through an earned income tax credit,” he has declined to comment on the push for a $13 wage — letting a skeptical Department of Finance speak for him.

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