City Council defers action on minimum wage proposal, passes tobacco restrictions

Ethan Epstein/File

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After returning from its summer recess, Berkeley City Council voted at its Tuesday meeting to defer an action to raise the city’s minimum wage until November and moved forward with proposals to limit tobacco sales and raise the minimum age of tobacco purchase to 21 years old.

Outside City Hall, multiple coalitions rallied together in support of raising the minimum wage and drew protesters from around the East Bay region as far north as Sacramento. Supporters said that passing a minimum wage in Berkeley would benefit communities all over the East Bay. The protesters were also encouraging the council to adopt a resolution against a U.S. military base in Okinawa, Japan, which the council voted to do at the meeting.

As protesters were posted outside, the council heard recommendations from the city’s Commission on Labor, which suggested to include a path to a living wage, which would gradually raise the minimum wage until it reaches $19 in 2020. Afterward, the minimum wage would be adjusted to the cost of living.

Additionally, the commission included policy objectives that would pay all workers sick leave at the same rate — for every 30 hours worked, one hour of sick leave would be earned. The recommendations also stipulated that gratuity and tips collected by employers must be given to employees in a designated distribution plan.

City staff proposed a different strategy. Though no position was taken on the minimum wage issue, the staff suggested the creation of a separate sick leave proposal, arguing that employers may be confused if the provision is part of the minimum wage ordinance and may think to apply sick leave only to those workers and not to everyone.

During public comment, Gary Jimenez, an elementary school custodian and East Bay regional vice president for Service Employees International Union, spoke at the meeting about how the current minimum wage is not livable.

Richard Villarreal, general manager at Spenger’s Grotto, said at the meeting that making the minimum wage $19 an hour is “staggering to the mind.”
“We will not survive, we will close our doors, and I suspect others will as well,” Villarreal said.

After hearing the two separate policy recommendations, Councilmember Kriss Worthington moved to create another path to a living wage, a phased approach to reach $15 by 2018. But the council ultimately decided to direct city staff to draft recommendations for paid sick leave as a separate ordinance and deferred the minimum wage issue. Both will be discussed at a special City Council meeting Nov. 10.

Although the minimum wage issue was divisive among the council members, they unanimously passed a proposal to raise the minimum age for tobacco and electronic cigarette purchases to 21 years old. The council then referred the proposal to the Community Health Commission, which will return to the council with recommendations before a second reading would establish the ordinance.

The council also supported recommendations from public comment to remove penalties for tobacco possession for those under 21 and only penalize those who are responsible for furnishing the tobacco to those underage.

Tobacco retailers at the meeting said they were in favor of raising the minimum age but took issue with the tobacco sales restrictions that the council ultimately voted in favor of.

On Sept. 29, the council will further discuss a potential tobacco sales restriction that would implement a buffer zone of 600 feet between schools and tobacco vendors, with a grace period of three years to minimize economic hardship on retailers.

Such a proposal would also prohibit the sale of both electronic cigarettes and flavored e-juice within 600 feet of all schools. Vendors can sell electronic cigarettes as long as they have a license and are outside of the 600-foot buffer from schools.

The next council meeting will be held Tuesday.

Contact Jamie Nguyen and Danwei Ma at [email protected].

A previous version of this article incorrectly stated City Council decided not to act on adopting a resolution against a U.S. military base in Okinawa, Japan. In fact, the council voted to adopt the resolution.