Berkeley workers talk future state increase of minimum wage

Aditi Raghunath/Staff

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Jordan Zimmerman was once a sales associate at a local retail store, putting in 20 hours a week to help make extra money on the side as she studied at UC Berkeley.

Yet for Zimmerman, a campus junior, working at the then-$9-per-hour minimum wage did not fully ease the burden of paying for rent, especially in a city with escalating housing prices and cost of living.

“It’s better than not having a job, (but) when you work minimum wage, it’s hard to envision how to pay for rent,” Zimmerman said. “If I work 20 hours a week and still can’t make payment, it’s disheartening.”

Citing an increase in the minimum wage as a moral and societal necessity for workers, Gov. Jerry Brown signed legislation last week that will increase California’s minimum wage to $15 an hour for all businesses by 2023.

“This is about economic justice, it’s about people,” Brown said in a press release. “This is an important day, it’s not the end of the struggle but it’s a very important step forward.”

A previous study by UC Berkeley researchers revealed that increasing the state minimum wage would be accommodated by employers through reduced worker turnover, improved productivity and modest price increases. Some economists, however, such as UC Irvine professor of economics David Neumark, note that wage increases can lead to job losses.

Berkeley adopted its own minimum wage ordinance June 10, 2014, when City Council approved an increase from $9 to $12.53 an hour by October 2016.

A city ordinance, enacted in 2000, identifies Berkeley’s living wage, which is currently set at $14.04 per hour plus a medical benefit equivalent to at least $2.33 per hour, adjusted annually according to a federal consumer price index. Yet, as of October 2015, the city minimum wage is $11 an hour, a rate that will be mandatory throughout the state by January 2019.

Working as a hostess and cashier at Korean restaurant T-Toust and earning minimum wage, campus junior Joyce Kim said the minimum wage increase would be beneficial, though she appreciates that Berkeley’s minimum wage is higher than that of other areas.

“I was looking for minimum wage (jobs) in other places,” Kim said. “I think Berkeley’s minimum wage is on the better side, so I’m not complaining.”

Pacific Cookie Company employee Cort Young said, however, that while it was difficult for part-time workers and students to earn a decent amount of disposable income in Berkeley on the minimum wage, it would be even harder for those working full time.

“I was working around 20 hours a week, which is half of full time, and every two weeks I’d make around $350, and that’s not much,” Young said. “You burn through (the money) super fast and it’s barely enough for me to buy groceries. I couldn’t imagine having to raise a family.”

The city’s Commission on Labor recommended to City Council in September that the minimum wage be raised to $19 an hour by 2020. At a November City Council meeting, however, council members voted to draft an ordinance to raise the minimum wage to $15 by 2020 instead.

For those currently making more than minimum wage, the extra money has made day-to-day expenses more manageable. When UC Berkeley junior Clara Ki was promoted, she received a pay raise at a campus job at Educational Technology Services, which has since helped her financially.

“I used to get paid $11, and now I get paid $15, and in the long run it helps me to make more money to pay for a variety of expenses,” Ki said. “Personally, it makes me more independent and allows me to pay for living expenses since tuition is so expensive (for out-of-state students).”

Public support for an increased minimum wage was the driving force behind Brown and the state Legislature passing the $15-an-hour minimum wage, said Councilmember Kriss Worthington.

Building on the perceived momentum, an initiative to increase the city minimum wage to $15 on Oct. 1, 2017 is currently being circulated to acquire signatures, Worthington said, and will be discussed at the next City Council meeting April 26.

Alok Narahari is the lead business and economy reporter. Contact him at [email protected].