Minimum wage increases have been an issue for at least the last hundred years. It has once again been brought from the back to the front burner and it is, unquestionably, a burning issue. It is a moral imperative for all of us to support whatever efforts can be made to place workers in a circumstance by which they can earn, not just a minimum way, but a living wage!
Some two weeks ago I was invited to attend a conference downtown at Holman Methodist Church. Its primary purpose was to address this issue. The follow-up, just this week, was a press conference (which many of you may have caught on television news). Packed with workers and supporters, the gathering was held on the steps of City Hall and asked for a minimum wage increase of $15 an hour.
In fact, later that day during the regular Council meeting, six members — Curren Price, Gil Cedillo, Mark Bonin, Paul Koretz, Paul Krekorian, and Nury Martinez (who hosted a tribute to Latino Women in the Arts in Los Angeles in honor of Hispanic Heritage Month) — voted to raise the minimum wage to $15.25 by 2019 in solidarity with Mayor Garcetti’s timeline. The measure has been sent to committee and will be ready for a vote in early 2015. It was exciting that Vice President Biden (one of my favorite all-time politicians) was in the City on the same day, meeting with the Mayor and unequivocally backing such a raise. (I wish he would run for President!)
Alberto Retana (VP of the Community Coalition of South Los Angeles) hosted both events. He succinctly delineated the three-pronged approach:
- Raise the minimum wage for all workers within the City of Los Angeles to $15 an hour — equal to about $32,000 a year for a 40-hour week. Considering rent, food, utilities, and other necessities, even that would barely be enough for a single person to live on in a city as expensive as ours so plainly is.
- Eliminate wage theft. In fact, 28% of Angelenos live in poverty and are subject to wage theft (80% of low-wage workers). As an example, wait staff at restaurants often have their tips stolen, are forced to work overtime without pay, and are taxed through an unjust calculation on wages. People working in the garment industry (mostly Asian-Americans and Latinos) spend part of their time working off the clock. Many workers are not paid for overtime or even breaks or a lunch period as the law demands. Too many are subject to earned wages being withheld for no legitimate reason.
When an employee has the “audacity” to file a grievance, the process takes about two years to resolve, and then, the petitioner often only receives a penny on the dollar for what is owed. Furthermore, only about 13% of the people receiving favorable verdicts receive any compensation at all because there are no real enforcement procedures implemented on a regular and consistent basis supporting the process!
- Five days of paid sick leave. California has recently passed legislation to require three days off per year, but reality tells us that that is not enough. If you come down with the flu, is three days enough to recover fully? Do we want people going to work who can pass on illnesses to co-workers, customers, contaminate food and other items with which those at the businesses would come into contact? What about caring for sick children? Do we want students to attend school while they are ill and potentially pass on illnesses to others? Don’t we want parents to be able to stay at home to care for family members—spouse, child, parent?
Los Angeles is the low-wage capital of the nation. The unemployed, those who are lucky enough to get new jobs, find that they are earning, on average, 23% less than they were in their previous employment. Today, roughly 21% of our workers here live in dire poverty. Despite working full-time jobs, making the current minimum wage of $9 per hour in the City of Los Angeles fails to cover the most basic necessities of food and housing and denies them the opportunity to participate fully in the local economy.
Unfortunately, race has insinuated itself into this whole argument. It seems that different ethnic groups are being pitted against each other over hiring, pay, and promotions, among others. One testimonial at the conference stated that economic and racial injustice is a two-headed beast (although another added a third head is gender inequality). Laborers need a voice in determining their working conditions, such as the ability to hold employers accountable for their unfair and unjust actions, that all ethnicities have equal access to job opportunities, and that health and safety laws be enforced to the full extent required by these various pieces of legislation.
To put it bluntly, Black applicants are half as likely as equally qualified whites to receive low-wage jobs (or even invitations to interview for them). It should not be surprising, then, that Black and Latino applicants with clean backgrounds fared no better than white applicants just released from prison! Various forms of racial bias in hiring are clearly at work (at the same time that the ethnic applicants are not). These results point to the subtle yet systematic forms of discrimination that continue to shape employment opportunities for low-wage workers.
An additional but related problem is that “Black Angelenos” generally find themselves in a food desert and are also cognizant of the fact that there is a dearth of other commodities available to them where they live. The question is how to convince businesses—large and small—to invest in these communities. One reason for the lack of commerce is that Black entrepreneurs (current and potential) do not have access to credit from banking institutions in order to establish themselves or expand already existing enterprises.
Sharon Kyle (co-founder of LA Progressive) indicated that we must also take into consideration the needs of pregnant women (“respect the bump”). These women should not have to lift heavy objects but need regular breaks, and should not be forced back to work immediately after delivering her child in order to keep her job (Walmart has been guilty of such practices for years).
Another speaker tearfully spoke of just how difficult it is to rear a family on the low wages she and her husband earn (another supporter added that no one who works 40 hours a week should be made to live in devastating poverty). The speaker insisted that people should not have to choose between paying the rent and clothing and feeding their families. Thank goodness, some families, who depend in part on Federal programs, know that their children will be fed two meals at school. Obviously, decent and appropriate wages would not make this dependence necessary. People have pride and want to do for themselves if given the chance. For many, nevertheless, family circumstances still leave the household significantly unable to meet their basic needs.
It is just counterintuitive that our economy can grow if people have no money to spend! Earn more, spend more–on housing, cars, food, clothing, all of which then generates more jobs at the retail level, manufacturing, construction, and so forth. City Council has therefore stated that “the current minimum wage has made income inequality one of the most pressing social, economic and civil rights issues facing the City.”
Currently, 810,000 Angelinos are being paid less than $15 an hour. As one way for rectifying this salary issue, Los Angeles Mayor Garcetti is recommending an increase of $13.25 an hour to be implemented between 2015 and 2017. City Council entered a motion last Tuesday to increase the minimum wage to $15.25 an hour by 2019, and further increased thereafter based on indexed cost-of-living standards. The proposal is now in committee and should receive a final vote early in 2015. Incidentally, the new ordinance, if passed, will include certain reasonable exemptions for tip workers, jobs designed for youthful employments, etc.
Workers need to be treated with the dignity they deserve! Working two to three jobs a day to make ends meet is antithetical to what should be expected of anyone. People need to have time to spend with their family, to supervise and guide their children to stay on the right path, to take part as genuine stakeholders in community events and issues. Very importantly, they need to have time for themselves to rest and rejuvenate! These basic expectations are only possible if an employee earns a livable wage!
It is important to note that though at least half a million LA workers would be impacted by the suggested raise, there would be only “a modest impact on business operating costs and consumer prices”–something that could be easily absorbed and result in expanded business. Keep in mind that City Council recently approved raising the wages of workers at our largest hotels in Los Angeles to $15.37 an hour. Councilmember Krekorian has “promised” the sky will not fall as a result.
Furthermore, by raising wage minimums, taxpayers would benefit as a whole—reducing the amount paid out through CAL Fresh (our state version of SNAP—the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program) and the EBT (food stamp) Program. The saved monies could then be utilized for other much-needed expenditures.
Other cities (San Francisco, San Diego, Seattle, and Chicago—to name a few) throughout the United States have passed such measures already and others are contemplating doing so. San Francisco (always a leader in progressive issues) began its fair-wage program with $100,000 in its budget, allocated to establish and enforce its rulings—now the budget is $5 million to make certain that best business practices are being pursued.
In addition, to make this policy work for the greater community, economic justice and environmental justice must be seen as partners in creating a more just and inclusive society. There are so many issues that overlap and need to be considered when making any decision.
This article is meant to sum up the problem and encourage all of us to contact our respective City Councilmembers to urge unequivocal support for not only the wage increases but also for the concomitant issues that are so important in making any such changes work.
To contact your Councilmember, please call the following number: 310-289-0353. You will be asked where you live so they can determine who that representative is and how to contact that person. You can also write to your councilmember once you know in which district you live. For instance, for Paul Koretz (CD 5), the website is cd5.lacity.org and the email address is 213-473-7005—all 5’s.
For all of us, I say, “Lucha por quinze–Fight for 15!” Sí se puede—Yes we can!