Berkeley’s Commission on Labor develops strategy to raise minimum wage

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Karin Goh/Staff

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At its Wednesday meeting, the city’s Commission on Labor developed strategies on how to move forward its recommendations to raise the minimum wage in Berkeley.

The commission will meet with council members and plan public outreach efforts through Nov. 10, when Berkeley City Council will discuss the recommendations put forth by the commission, which include a phased approach to increasing the minimum wage to $19 by 2020 and tying it to the cost of living thereafter.

In October, Berkeley’s minimum wage will increase to $11 from the current level of $10, per the approach City Council adopted last year after the labor commission’s recommendations. In 2016, the minimum wage will raise to $12.53, where it will stay, barring further adjustments.

“I’m all for raising the minimum wage … but we also need businesses to be in business,” said Mayor Tom Bates at the council meeting. “I do believe we need to go to $15 an hour and (in a relatively) short time.”

Jess McCarter, one of the founders of Easy Creole, a South Berkeley restaurant, said he supports the minimum wage increase. He added, however, that an increase without implementing government regulations, such as stricter rent control or income tax exemptions for low-wage workers to offset the economic burden on small businesses, could cause them to suffer.

“Why should landlords buy at 1990 prices and charge 2020 rent?” McCarter asked. “These are the questions that need to be asked in conjunction with: ‘Why don’t (employers) pay people more money?’ ”

McCarter said he was open to the council adopting a plan similar to Emeryville’s minimum wage ordinance. At the labor commission meeting, city staff member Nathan Dahl said Councilmember Lori Droste asked him for a breakdown on small businesses with fewer than 50 employees — an indication of interest in examining a two-tier minimum wage policy, similar to that of Emeryville.

Emeryville’s tiered plan went into effect in July and is tailored to accommodate smaller businesses with 55 or fewer employees. Small businesses are required to pay employees $12.25 an hour, while those with 56 or more employees pay $14.44. These wages will increase annually until they reach $15 by 2018. By 2019, both kinds of businesses will pay the same level of wages, which will be adjusted each year in accordance with local consumer conditions.

“While $15 is a step in the right direction and helps to close the poverty gap, it’s not the silver bullet that many policy makers might see it as,” said Commissioner Angus Teter. “We need to realize these numbers are all relative to each other and they don’t have meaning unless we (attach) them to the living wage.”

Teter said that consumers are the basis of the economy and that research shows that giving them additional revenue in the form of wages would stimulate the local economy once those wages are calculated with a the cost of living taken into account.

“No one who works full time deserves to live in poverty,” Teter said. “Berkeley can do better than that.”

Moving forward, Dahl said the labor commission will work to answer inquiries from City Council concerning potential revisions to the minimum wage ordinance.

The next labor commission meeting is scheduled for Nov. 18.

Jamie Nguyen is the lead city government reporter. Contact her at [email protected].