Higher city minimum wage ordinance goes into effect

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After a year’s worth of public hearings and discussions with local businesses and labor unions, the city of Berkeley officially instated a $10-per-hour minimum wage Wednesday, officially surpassing state and federal minimums.

The citywide rate, which is a dollar higher than the state’s minimum, is the first step in a three-stage process City Council unanimously approved in June, with an $11 minimum wage going into effect October next year and $12.53 the following year. Employers must pay the new minimum wage to all employees covered under the ordinance for any hours employees work beginning Wednesday, according to Matthai Chakko, city spokesperson.

Jerry Harris, owner of 510 Skateboarding in Berkeley, said he completely supports a higher minimum wage and has been paying his workers more than the minimum wage even before Wednesday’s enactment. Still, he was concerned that the way in which Berkeley is administering its minimum wage law might hinder local businesses.

“Wal-Mart and Target or whoever else could totally afford a higher minimum wage, no problem — but that’s not who’s being affected,” Harris said. “Berkeley is 90 percent small businesses, so there may be unintended consequences with small businesses shutting down, leaving gaping holes for corporations who can afford to pay these higher wages.”

He said he didn’t feel it was entirely fair to place this burden on Berkeley’s small businesses, which he said are on friendly terms with their employees and actively contribute to the community. Harris added that unless other cities in the region increase their minimum wages, Berkeley’s small businesses will be at a disadvantage.

Other local businesses that pay minimum wage, such as Smart Alec’s Intelligent Food, had to make adjustments in light of Wednesday’s ordinance.

“My labor cost is going to go up … I could raise my prices to compensate it but Telegraph (Avenue) is a very competitive commercial area,” said Maribel Perez, manager at Smart Alec’s, in an email. “That leaves me with the decision of either reduce the portions of my food or cut my employees hours and work with less staff.”

To assist the city in enforcement, SEIU Local 1021, a union representing public service workers in Northern California, plans on visiting local businesses, handing information cards to workers and educating them on the heightened minimum wage and how to respond if they are not being paid it, according to Shum Preston, the union’s spokesperson.

Because enforcement of the ordinance is complaint driven, any employee who feels his or her employer has failed to pay the minimum wage can file a wage claim through the city, Chakko said.

The city’s minimum wage ordinance, however, does not affect jobs on UC Berkeley’s campus, Preston said. Caitlin Quinn, ASUC external affairs vice president, said raising the campus minimum wage would require lobbying at the statewide level with all other campuses in the UC system.

Nevertheless, Quinn felt that the city’s raised minimum wage was a victory for students, especially for those who work off campus or recent graduates who stay in the city looking for jobs.

Wendy Bloom, a nurse at Children’s Hospital Oakland and city labor commissioner who played a role in the union’s efforts to raise Berkeley’s minimum wage, felt the $10 will need to raise to $15 before anyone can even begin seeing dramatic changes in East Bay communities where, in her experience, many families cannot afford transportation to the hospital, let alone the hospital visit itself and medication.

For Gary Jimenez, an elementary school custodian and East Bay regional vice president for SEIU, the first of three wage increases is a step in the direction of addressing wealth inequality.

Having worked as a school bus driver and custodian in the Fremont Unified School District, Jimenez witnessed the day-to-day challenges students from low-income families faced, such as being sent to school when they were sick because their parents could not take time off from work.

“People don’t have hope and will do what they need to do just to survive,” Jimenez said. “And there’s a toll that that takes on the children — because it’s no fault of their own.”

At its Tuesday meeting, City Council discussed a proposal asking the city’s Commission on Labor to return with recommendations on sick leave, additional worker benefits and other features that should be considered in addition to the approved wage increases.

Bo Kovitz covers city news. Contact her at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter @beau_etc.