L.A. activists plan $15-minimum-wage ballot measure

$15 minimum wage advocates argue that existing wages are too low for workers and their families to thrive

A coalition of activists is pushing Los Angeles to follow in the footsteps of Seattle and boost its minimum wage across the city, drafting a ballot measure that would hike the hourly base to $15.

California's minimum wage recently rose to $9 an hour and will reach $10 by 2016. But the idea of a $15 minimum has been gaining momentum in the state and elsewhere, as advocates argue that existing wages are too low for workers and their families to thrive.

Seattle recently approved a gradual move to a $15-an-hour minimum, and San Francisco voters are slated to decide in November whether to follow suit. Backers believe those earlier campaigns — along with Los Angeles' efforts to boost wages for school district employees and hotel workers — will ease the way for L.A. voters to green-light a $15 minimum for all workers.

"This isn't a pie-in-the-sky kind of thing," said John Parker, an organizer with the Los Angeles Workers Assembly, a grass-roots group backing the proposal. "It's something that a lot of people are demanding."

Business groups have frequently been critical of such wage boosts, warning that hiking pay too much or too fast will cost jobs. Stuart Waldman, president of the Valley Industry & Commerce Assn., argued that a $15 minimum wage was too steep and would push businesses out of the city.

"If we want to drive people to Texas, this is the first thing to do," Waldman said. "Fifteen dollars is just so drastic.... It'll make L.A. an attractive place for workers, but there won't be any jobs for those workers."

Backers counter that higher wages would pump more money into the local economy as workers spend their boosted paychecks. Last week, the group took a first step toward putting the plan to voters, submitting language to the city clerk's office for a proposed ballot initiative. They plan to hold a press conference Thursday outside a South L.A. McDonald's.

Their proposal would require a $15 minimum wage for employees who work at least two hours a week for their employer, including workers who get tips. The minimum wage would then rise annually, hitched to any increases in the consumer price index for the Los Angeles metropolitan area, according to the draft proposal. Businesses that violate the rules could face financial penalties. If ultimately approved by voters, the boost would go into effect immediately for larger businesses, with a delay of less than two years for small businesses and nonprofits, Parker said.

To get onto the ballot in Los Angeles, an initiative would need nearly 62,000 signatures, according to the city clerk. If the campaign garners enough signatures, backers anticipate that the measure could go before voters as soon as next March.

The bid to boost the minimum wage citywide follows other efforts to boost pay for some — but not all — Angelenos. The Los Angeles Unified School District recently opted to ramp up wages to at least $15 an hour for service workers such as cafeteria employees, custodians and teaching assistants.

In a separate move, city officials are drafting an ordinance that would require large hotels to pay at least $15.37 an hour. But some local politicians who support that boost — including Mayor Eric Garcetti — have raised concerns about singling out hotel workers for a minimum wage increase. Nearly half of L.A.'s hourly or salaried workers are paid less than $15 an hour, according to a 2013 report by the Economic Roundtable.

"I feel like there's a lot of workers left behind," Garcetti said last month about the proposed hike for hotel workers.

Garcetti spokesman Yusef Robb said Monday that the mayor's office was still reviewing the proposal and could not comment specifically on it. Groups supporting the plan include Interfaith Communities United for Justice and Peace, Southern California Immigration Coalition and the Los Angeles Peace Council.

As of Monday, the campaign did not yet involve some of the key groups and leaders already pushing to boost wages for Los Angeles hotel workers, such as the Los Angeles Alliance for a New Economy. City Councilman Curren Price, who has championed the wage increase for hotel workers, said he hadn't talked to anyone from the new campaign but was interested to learn more.

Meanwhile, the Los Angeles Chamber of Commerce questioned the motives of the new group, pointing to a provision that would give the Los Angeles Workers Assembly responsibility for educating employees about their rights. Chamber Senior Vice President Ruben Gonzalez argued that such rules would make them "an enforcement arm," giving them access to fees charged by the city.

The activists flatly denied that their plan would grant them any city funding. The Los Angeles Workers Assembly plans to hold a gathering Saturday at Los Angeles Trade and Technical College to officially launch its campaign and invite more support.

"If L.A. is able to successfully pass this, it will put pressure on the rest of cities and states to follow through," said Sharon Black, a national coordinator with Peoples Power Assemblies, which helped form the Los Angeles group.

emily.alpert@latimes.com

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