County Follows L.A.’s Lead: Raises Minimum Wage

By Elizabeth Marcellino, City News Service

The Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors voted Tuesday to incrementally raise the minimum wage in unincorporated areas over the next five years, reaching $15 an hour by 2020.

Supervisor Hilda Solis, initially hesitant about the possible impact on small businesses, joined Sheila Kuehl and Mark Ridley-Thomas in backing the ordinance. Supervisors Michael Antonovich and Don Knabe dissented, raising concerns about the impact on businesses.

Knabe voted in favor of the hike for county employees only. The minimum wage statewide is currently $9 an hour, but it is scheduled to increase to $10 an hour in January.

Kuehl recommended the county wage hike, which – like the increase recently approved by the city of Los Angeles – will include a series of increases over five years, beginning July 1, 2016, and reaching $15 an hour by 2020. The wage will go to $10.50 in July 2016, $12 in July 2017, $13.25 in July 2018, $14.25 in July 2019 then to $15 the following year. The hike will also mirror the city increase by delaying the increase by one year for businesses with fewer than 26 employees.

After 2020, the wage will be adjusted annually based on the cost of living, something Knabe said he was convinced was “absolutely the wrong thing to do.”

Kuehl said she’d “never been prouder than I am today” about giving “tens of thousands of low-wage workers whose labor has been undervalued and, too often, stole” the opportunity to enter the working class rather than living in “the poverty class.”

Antonovich countered that “a $15 minimum wage is really $21.17” once taxes and health insurance are considered. He also warned that theme parks like Magic Mountain and retailers like Ross and Walmart might be annexed to other cities to avoid paying the higher wage, hurting the county tax roll.

“Are you going to have businesses stay here, thrive and create jobs or are you going to have another exodus?” Antonovich said.

The board discussed the proposal last month, but postponed a vote due to concerns over a Los Angeles County Economic Development Corporation report on the issue. Solis also withheld her support while awaiting a survey of small business owners and considering ways to mitigate the impact of the wage bump for them.

Tuesday, dozens of workers packed the county boardroom in support of the wage hike, telling the board that despite working full-time, they’re unable to pay for basic necessities. They faced off against business owners, large and small, who mostly opposed the increase, warning suprvisors that they would be forced to lay off workers, cut hours and raise prices.

Elected officials also turned out to make their case to the board.

Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti led off with an economic argument.

“Poverty is very, very expensive,” Garcetti said. “When we lose billions in lost wages, when we see folks who can’t support themselves, who winds up paying for it? We do.”

The owner of a Valencia-based warehousing and fulfillment business who said he ships about “20 football fields of consumer products” and supports a $16 million annual payroll warned that he might be forced to move or to automate jobs currently performed by at-risk youth or developmentally disabled workers.

“What you’re doing is going to be really damaging to businesses like mine,” business owner Ken Wiseman told the board.

Wiseman predicted that businesses would move across the Golden State (5) Freeway to Santa Clarita, which he expects will not raise its minimum wage.

A representative of Raging Waters theme park told the board the wage hike will cost the park $1.5 million and would prohibit the company from investing in new attractions.

The board’s action – which will also apply to county employees – leaves dozens of municipalities to decide whether they will respond in kind.

West Hollywood Mayor Lindsey Horvath told the board she is looking at how her city might join the wave of those seeking to raise the standard of living for families struggling to pay housing costs and students buried under school loans.

“Raising the minimum wage is not just the right thing to do, it’s the thing to do right now,” Horvath said. “Our communities can’t wait.”

Business representatives warned that setting a higher wage in unincorporated areas would create a bureaucratic nightmare for businesses that operate within and outside of those “islands.”

However, many of those representing local businesses seemed resigned to the outcome of Tuesday’s vote and focused instead on working out the details of the wage ordinance.

Tracy Rafter, founder of BizFed, which she said represents more than 140 chambers and business organizations, cited “deep concern” about how fast the county was moving to implement such a dramatic increase. But Rafter said she wanted to focus on protecting exemptions for nonprofits and teenage employees and on crafting a definition of employees that would minimize the impact on businesses working across municipalities.

Others expressed support for a small business initiative, championed by Solis and Supervisor Don Knabe, designed to help businesses by potentially providing tax relief, fee waivers or reductions and workforce training.

In a related motion, Solis and Ridley-Thomas proposed that the county move to regulate wage theft.

Nearly 80 percent of low-wage workers who work overtime aren’t paid appropriately and wage theft – which includes being denied meal and rest breaks and working off the clock – disproportionately affects immigrants, women and people of color, according to the supervisors’ proposal.

On a unanimous vote, the board directed staffers to report back on potential enforcement tools including criminal penalties, denying permits and licenses and imposing liens.

A draft minimum wage ordinance is expected to come back for board approval in 45 days.

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July 23, 2015  Copyright © 2012 Eastern Group Publications, Inc.

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