A varied response to L.A. County's vote to study minimum-wage boost

L.A. County supervisors' vote to study potential effects of minimum-wage hike catches businesses' attention

North Fair Oaks Avenue in Altadena is home to several small, independently owned businesses that are testament to a gradual revitalization of the city's oldest commercial district.

Women's clothing boutique Lailah's Loft, bustling Fair Oaks Burger and well-reviewed Pizza of Venice all draw crowds, as does the Altadena Ale and Wine House a couple of blocks down the hill. And Altadena native Scott Webster and his wife, Lori, showcase the wares of local artisans at their gift shop, Hoopla! An Emporium of Good Things.

The Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors' vote last week to study the potential effects of boosting the minimum wage caught the attention of business owners across a wide swath of the region, including in Altadena, one of about 140 unincorporated communities that would be covered by any county law imposing a hike beyond the current state minimum of $9 an hour.

Their responses were as diverse as the businesses themselves.

"I'm all for any kind of wage increase; I believe it's going to help the economy," said Pizza of Venice co-owner Jamie Woolner outside the restaurant, which is tucked into a strip mall. He added that he and his business partner, Sean St. John, have paid their four employees more than the minimum wage since opening their gourmet pizza eatery in June 2013.

"We can afford it," Woolner said, noting that customers are "willing to pay for high-quality food," including pizzas made with fresh ingredients and meats the restaurant cures itself.

The Websters say their business has struggled — they had to drop their six employees when their rent skyrocketed, forcing them to move to their current, smaller location. But they had raised all their workers' pay to above the minimum rate when they took over an office products and art supplies store in 2007.

"If somebody is a good employee — hard-working, with a good personality, a problem-solver — they've got to be worth more" than the minimum wage, said Scott Webster, whose grandfather opened a family-run pharmacy in Altadena in 1926. "And people always do better when they are appreciated."

But if the county is going to impose higher wage requirements on the nearly 6,800 businesses in its unincorporated communities, it also should do something to help small, independent proprietors, Lori Webster said, suggesting tax breaks or campaigns to encourage residents to shop locally.

Longtime Altadena businesswoman Leslie Aitken, owner of a clothing design company, said the minimum wage is too low: "Who can live on $9 an hour?"

But she said small businesses, which tend to hire area residents and depend on locals as customers, are hard-pressed to pay more, especially without a government that can set up commerce-encouraging "enterprise zones" or find other ways to help local businesses prosper.

"We're not a city, with our own budget and our own elected officials," Aitken said. "Nothing is funded. We have to depend on the county, and I would love to have someone from the county come and ask us, 'What can we do to help?'"

Fair Oaks Burger owner Christy Lee and her mother work alongside three longtime employees to keep up with the customers who crowd into their small restaurant. She pays her workers "well above minimum wage," which she believes "could be adjusted for a higher cost of living for the working class."

But Lee worries that she already feels as if "I'm living from paycheck to paycheck myself, even with a successful restaurant. Who is going to adjust for my higher cost of doing business? As the minimum wage rises, I feel pressure to correspondingly raise my employees' wages to counterbalance."

"I am happy to pay my employees because they do hard and excellent work for the business," Lee said. "I just hope I can maintain their hours and wages" if the county boosts minimum pay rates.

Led by Supervisors Sheila Kuehl and Hilda Solis, both recently elected with strong support from labor unions, the board stepped into a movement to raise wages that has pitted labor against business interests and generated debate over whether increased compensation for the lowest-paid workers would help lift people out of poverty and stimulate the economy, as supporters argue, or would boost prices, cost jobs and cause businesses to go under or move to other jurisdictions, as opponents complain.

The board's vote came as the city of Los Angeles debates implementing a minimum wage of as much as $15.25 by 2019. Other California cities, including San Francisco and San Diego, have recently boosted their wage minimums above the state level, and some other cities in Los Angeles County, such as Santa Monica and West Hollywood, are considering doing so.

Nationally, Chicago and Seattle were among cities raising their minimum wages last year, while such municipalities as Washington, D.C., New York City and Portland, Maine, have wage-boost proposals in the hopper.

As part of the upcoming study by the county Economic Development Corp., county officials have promised to hold hearings to allow business owners to have their say. They're likely to get an earful from some, especially restaurant owners who say they would have to raise prices, lay off workers or even close if they're required to shell out more in wages, with a corresponding hike in payroll and workers' compensation taxes.

"It would be rather devastating," said Mike Burroughs, who opened the Broken Bit Steakhouse in the Antelope Valley community of Quartz Hill two years ago. "I don't have room in my bottom line for that.... It's unbelievable that something like this is even being considered."

jean.merl@latimes.com

Twitter: @jeanmerl

Times staff writer Abby Sewell contributed to this report.

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