On the same day the U.S. Senate was blocked from passing a proposal to raise the federal minimum wage to $10.10 per hour, a committee of the San Diego City Council moved forward on a plan to raise the local minimum wage to $13.09 per hour by 2017.
With an overflow audience of more than 200 spectators and speakers, the council's committee on economic development and intergovernmental relations voted 3-1 to develop a measure that would boost the minimum wage as well as institute paid sick leave for workers, which could be enacted either by a ballot measure in December or a vote of the City Council.
"We're going to act even though the federal government isn't, because it makes sense," said Councilmember David Alvarez.
If the measure passes, San Diego would join nine other municipalities and 21 states that have rates higher than the national minimum, including San Francisco and Seattle, which are debating proposals to push the minimum to $15.
But Councilmember Mark Kersey — who cast the only vote against the measure — said the Council had not done enough work to study how the wage hike might affect the local economy and businesses, some of which say they may have to lay off workers, slash benefits or move out of town if the wage passes.
"I feel like I'm throwing darts in the dark here," he said.
Council President Todd Gloria and City Attorney Jan Goldsmith are now working to tweak the proposal before giving it to the committee for a second review June 11.
During an hour of public comment, most speakers — whether for or against the initiative — said they support a general increase in the minimum wage, which has less than half of the purchasing power in San Diego than it did at its peak in 1968.
But some critics — notably the San Diego Regional Chamber of Commerce — said the increase should occur at the state or federal level, because a local increase could put San Diego at a competitive disadvantage against nearby cities.
Supporters of the increase responded that studies have shown that other cities that have raised their wages do not have any disadvantage against their neighbors. One study showed that San Francisco, which sets its minimum at $10.74, has suffered no ill effects compared to Oakland, just across the bay, which stuck with the statewide minimum. Oakland is now debating raising its minimum to $12.
Other critics said that while they support the goal of aiding local workers, they feel the measure needs to be more tailored toward meeting the needs of specific industries, such as:
• Hotels and restaurants. Representatives from local hotel unions joined restaurant owners to complain that the council's proposal does not take into account the tips earned by waiters, bartenders, valets and other workers. Bridget Browning, representing the hotel workers union, worried that if hotels are forced to raise the minimum wage of tipped workers, they might cut back other benefits that could affect all workers. State law, however, prohibits tips from being taken into account as wages for that purpose, partly because they can vary dramatically between workers.
• Home health care workers. Several representatives of home health care firms said the wage hike could hurt their elderly clients, who often struggle to match the current minimum wage. "If you're wealthy, that won't be a problem," said Lori Edwards Tate, who heads At Your Home Family Care. Tate said home care for poor people can be subsidized by the government, so the people who are hurt most will be the middle class.
• Construction contractors. Andy Berg, head of the Electrical Contractors Association, said he fully supports an increase in the minimum wage, since the unionized contractors — who make a minimum of $38 per hour — are already making a comfortable salary, together with strong health and pension benefits.
But he said that one reason they make that wage is that their contracts, arranged through collective bargaining, prohibit them from receiving pay for sick days. He asked the council members to make sure their proposal won't affect such contracts.
The workers who spoke to the council spoke of the problems of making minimum wage in San Diego, such as working two jobs at once to support their families, often meaning that they rarely see their children, who are left with friends and neighbors — or working while they are sick because they cannot afford to take time off.
"I have kids who come to school sick because nobody's at home with them," said Bill Freeman, president of the San Diego Education Association. "The policy is to call the parents if a student's temperature is above 100 degrees, but we often can't reach the parents because they're at work, so we have to keep the children in school."
The federal minimum wage peaked at $1.60 per hour in 1968 and has not kept pace with the rising cost of living since then. If the federal minimum had simply risen with the national inflation rate over the past 46 years, it would be about $10.86 instead of its current level of $7.25, which has remained unchanged since 2009.
The impact is worse in places such as San Diego, where the inflation rate has outpaced the national average for several decades. In San Diego, a worker would now have to make $13.87 an hour to have the buying power of a minimum-wage worker in 1968, said Alan Gin, an economist at the University of San Diego.
To help make up for the nationwide gap, President Barack Obama has been pushing to raise the federal minimum to $10.10 per hour, which got a 56-42 vote of support Wednesday in the Senate. But the measure failed because its supporters did not have the 60 votes needed to overcome a Republican-led filibuster.
Alvarez said the measure is necessary because San Diegans cannot keep up with living expenses if they make only the statewide minimum of $8 per hour, which is scheduled to rise to $9 in July. Even after July, that would guarantee only a salary of $18,720 per year, which people on both sides of the debate say is too low to cover expenses in San Diego.
The Center on Policy Initiatives — a labor-friendly research group — calculates that an individual worker needs at least $13.09 an hour to make ends meet in San Diego. But the San Diego Workforce Partnership, working with United Way last year, estimated that at least $17.03 was needed for a salary to be self-sufficient.
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Sept. 23, 2014 -- George Chamberlin speaks with San Diego Mayor Kevin Faulconer about the importance of the military on San Diego's economy at a presentation of the San Diego Military Advisory Council’s sixth annual Military Economic Impact Study.