Berkeley bickers over $19 minimum wage

Plans to raise Berkeley’s minimum wage to as high as $19 an hour by 2020 were put over Tuesday night until a special City Council meeting in November.

After a lengthy public comment session at Tuesday’s meeting where dozens of supporters advocated for low-wage workers and local business owners warned higher wages could put them out of business, Mayor Tom Bates reminded supporters that the city’s minimum wage is already slated to rise next month and then again next year.

Berkeley’s minimum wage is currently $10 an hour and will rise to $11 per hour on Oct. 1 and then $12.53 per hour on Oct. 1, 2016.

Bates said:

“I’m all in favor of raising the minimum wage, I think everyone here is, but we also have to realize we need businesses to stay in business to pay the wage.”

But he said he would like a policy in place to keep up with other minimum wage hikes in the region, specifically San Francisco, where the minimum wage is slated to rise to $15 in 2018. Neighboring cities Emeryville, Oakland and Richmond have also recently passed substantial increases to their minimum wage.

The plan proposed by the city’s Commission on Labor would raise the city’s minimum wage by $1.50 an hour over the next five years — to $13 in 2016, $14.50 in 2017, $16 in 2018, $17.50 in 2019 and $19 in 2020. The minimum wage would then rise annually according to the rate of inflation.

The city also sought to develop a new policy requiring employers to provide paid sick leave. The labor commission recommended that policy be passed as a separate ordinance, and the council asked labor commission officials to draft that ordinance in preparation for a special meeting on Nov. 10, when they will take up the wage issue again.

Tuesday’s meeting drew dozens of low-wage workers, union organizers and other supporters of a higher minimum wage, who rallied outside of the meeting and lined up into the hallway to speak to the council.

Opponents of the hike were all business owners, largely of restaurants, but they were badly outnumbered by the passionate proponents of higher wages.

Advocates argued that the rising costs of living in Berkeley, particularly for renters, necessitated much higher wages. After a representative of the California Restaurant Association asked the council to “hit the pause button” on the wage hikes, a proponent responded that low-wage workers “cannot hit the pause button” on their rents and lives.

Travis Lyons, an emergency medical technician, said:

“Not only do I make a minimum wage caring for the wounded, the elderly, the dying … I see the effects of poverty every day in my job. … I’m tired of losing people. … I care more about my patients going under than I care about businesses going under.”

The opponents included Richard Villarreal, general manager of Spenger’s Fresh Fish Grotto, a Fourth Street restaurant run by West Coast restaurant chain McCormick & Schmick’s.

Villarreal said Spenger’s is still reeling from the minimum wage hike last year to $10 per hour:

“That impact has been deeply felt by us. … We will not survive. We will close our doors. I suspect many other businesses will do the same.”

Villarreal suggested the council adopt more gradual raises of 50 cents per year.

Polly Armstrong, CEO of the Berkeley Chamber of Commerce, said in her second time speaking at the meeting that the voice of businesses were not heard by the council and local owners were not consulted in plans to raise wages:

“It feels so good to say everyone should get a living wage, I believe that too. … But somebody’s got to run the business, somebody’s got to pay the bills, take those people into account too.”