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Santa Monica City Council Votes to Hike Hourly Minimum Wage to $15 an Hour by 2020

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Convention and Visitors Bureau Santa Monica

By Niki Cervantes
Staff Writer

January 14, 2016 -- The Santa Monica City Council on Tuesday approved raising the minimum wage for employees of most businesses there to $15 per hour by 2020, aligning the City for the most part with new laws for higher pay in Los Angeles City and unincorporated Los Angeles County.

In a meeting that lasted until just after midnight, the Council voted 6 to 0 for the higher minimum wage. A second vote in two weeks is needed to finalize the ordinance, which takes effect in July.

Council members expressed particular pride in the vote, which was not a surprise. The City Council, generally known as political progressive, had been working toward it for months.

“I guess we’re making history tonight,” said Council Member Kevin McKeown. “I hope we will become a reference city for workers’ rights.”

Council Member Pam O’Connor abstained from the vote, telling her colleagues and the audience she supported the concept but not the ordinance itself.

O’Connor’s objection stems from a provision in the law that gives unions the right to exclude their members. Organized labor argues its members are already covered by collective bargaining agreements negotiated independently of minimum wage laws.

Critics, many of them business owners, say the wording gives unfair leverage to organized labor, and could even result in pay that is lower than the minimum wage.

“I think the minimum wage being raised needs to apply equally to everyone,” O’Connor said at the session, which attracted more than 50 speakers.

Her opinion, she said, was not based on an 11th-hour campaign aimed at stopping the union-backed provision.

But early on in the session, City Manager Rick Cole took aim at the group behind the campaign, which is called Fair Wage Santa Monica. So far, the identity of group’s backers has been kept secret, but union officials believe it is the work of out-of-town conservatives who are anti-organized labor.

The campaign is the work of Washington D.C. based conservatives, Cole told the City Council in a harsh and surprisingly politically tinged rebuke. The players are attempting, he said, to “distort the public discussion to further their hidden agenda.”

“Because that’s the way they do business in Washington D.C., they think their thug tactics would work here,” said Cole, adding he rebuffed a paid signature-gatherer with a Fair Wage Santa Monica petition at a farmer’s market recently. “They are wrong.”

Cole’s comments seem to upset O’Connor. She called Cole’s comments “highly charged rhetoric” and said it was unfair to “demonize” critics of the provision.

Ruben Gonzalez, the only representative to surface publically from the One Fair Wage Coalition so far, denied it is being run by outsiders.

“I am not now, nor have I ever been, a Washington insider,” Gonzalez said after also being challenged from dias by Council Members Sue Himmelrich and Kevin McKeown.

Gonzalez delivered a petition with about 6,500 signatures from opponents to the provision in Santa Monica.

“What is your priority,” he asked the Council. “ Is it the equal treatment of all the workers or flexibility that is only offered under collective bargaining but denied to others in Santa Monica?”

Santa Monica’s minimum wage ordinance is modeled on the $15-an-hour law adopted by the Los Angeles City Council in July -- part of a trend among U.S. cities towards adjusting stagnant wages for its lowest paid workers. The same wage hike was approved for employees in unincorporated territory by the county Board of Supervisors shortly after Los Angeles acted.

As with Los Angeles, the new hourly wage in Santa Monica is phased in. Starting on July 1, it rises to $10.50, moving up each subsequent year to $12, $13.25, $14.25 and $15 by 2020.

In addition, hourly wages reach $15.37 by 2017 at Santa Monica hotels and motels of all sizes, as well as for business that operate at them.

Santa Monica’s law also would grant up to nine days of paid sick leave for businesses with 26 or more employees, or triple the total allowed by state law.

A one-year delay is offered by organizations with 25 or few employees. Nonprofit groups that work with the disadvantages also are granted a delay, with the $15 per hour kicking in 2021.

California’s minimum wage is $10 an hour.

Santa Monica officials spent eight months preparing the ordinance. The Council ended delaying a vote on September 29 to allow for more study and input from the City’s various interests, including businesses like hotels restaurants and those related to tourism, local union leaders and others.

Although hiking the minimum wage is often opposed by businesses, criticism of the City’s law was muted at Tuesday’s session. Carl Hansen of the city’s Chamber of Commerce said the new ordinance represented “something new and frightening” for its members, but that they appreciated the City’s attempts to work with businesses.

Several young, mostly seasonal employees showed up with fears that their employers would cut hours to compensate for the higher per-hour wage.

As it now stands, Santa Monica’s wage measure would allow employers to pay 85 percent of the minimum wage for 480 hours or six months to first-time workers.

Paloma Nicholas, a Santa Monica High School student, said it is a misconception that employees her age are just earning pocket change for goodies, like clothes or high-tech gadgets.

Many, she said, are saving for college and otherwise helping their families financially.

“We work and we work really hard,” she said. “Why is our work less valued?”

Other speakers worried about how surcharges and services charges would work in the law, and about how they could be monitored and enforced. In the end, the Council followed Cole’s advice and decided to set up a working group to handle those and other lingering issue.

Still, the biggest issue of the evening seemed to be over the opt-out for organized labor.

That provision became a flashpoint at the last minute in the debate over Los Angeles new higher minimum wage. It re-emerged in Santa Monica -- and also at the 11th-hour -- when a group called the One Fair Wage Coalition popped up in late December with a petition opposing the provision.

Gonzalez is the only representative of the group to surface at this point. He was an outspoken voice in the fight against the higher minimum wage in Los Angeles City as a representative of Los Angeles’s Chamber of Commerce at the time.

He has said that Santa Monica’s law is legally questionable. Council members expect more controversy over the provision, saying there has been quiet talk of a referendum on the issue in November.

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