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San Francisco leads the way with $15 minimum-wage ballot measure

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San Francisco recently won dubious distinction for having the fastest-growing wealth divide
As San Francisco considers a $15 minimum wage, there was a recent dust-up over $4 restaurant toast

Eleven years ago, San Francisco set precedent with the first citywide minimum-wage boost, giving it the highest wage floor in the nation. Another first soon required all employers to provide paid sick days. Yet another mandated healthcare for all.

Now, the city that recently won dubious distinction for the fastest-growing wealth divide is leading again.

Mayor Ed Lee last week stood with the full Board of Supervisors, labor and community groups and even a representative of the San Francisco Chamber of Commerce to announce a "consensus measure" for the November ballot that would boost the city's minimum wage to $15. It would reach full implementation before Seattle's similar increase and contain fewer exemptions.

It comes as other citywide wage boosts are being crafted in Oakland, Berkeley and Richmond, which have shared some of the sting of San Francisco's soaring cost of living.

Unlike in Seattle, San Francisco employers would have to comply regardless of their companies' size and receive no credit for sick or healthcare pay they already provide. Workers who receive tips are included.

"This is one of those great issues we can all unite around … the shared belief that someone who puts in a hard day's work deserves a respectable wage," Lee said in announcing the proposal, which would result in $15 an hour by July 2018.

The Golden Gate Restaurant Assn. decried it as a deal "between labor and the mayor." Executive Director Gwyneth Borden said her industry has already been criticized for high prices — there was a recent dust-up over $4 toast — and a victory, which polling deems likely, could force restaurants to further raise prices and lead to mandatory service charges in lieu of tips.

"The things that are happening in the economy don't happen in isolation," she said, noting that the drought is affecting restaurants dependent on locally sourced ingredients.

Backers, however, call the boost a matter of dignity for workers in a city where the unemployment rate has dipped to 4.4% — among the lowest in the nation.

"When the average one-bedroom apartment rents for $2,775 in the city of San Francisco, working families cannot afford to survive here, let alone thrive," said Shaw San Liu of the Chinese Progressive Assn., which was part of the workers' rights coalition that reached agreement with the mayor.

"San Francisco should not be leading the country as the No. 1 fastest-growing wealth divide," she said. "That's not the legacy we want to leave."

Key to the coalition was the Service Employees International Union Local 1021, which drove business concessions in the newly announced measure — and ensured a place at the table — by moving forward in April with an even stricter one. (Voters will now see just one version on the ballot.)

Meanwhile, in Oakland, another SEIU-backed initiative expected to qualify for the November ballot would boost the minimum wage to $12.25 an hour by March and compel employers to pay for sick days. The Berkeley and Richmond city councils are crafting their own measures, with input from labor, which has pledged to move forward with stronger versions if not satisfied with the councils' efforts.

Ken Jacobs, chairman of UC Berkeley's Center for Labor Research and Education, said the campaigns have gained steam as talk of a new wage floor intensifies nationwide. San Francisco's 2003 living-wage measure was followed closely by Santa Fe, N.M. Now, 10 municipalities have moved ahead of state and federal minimum wages.

Among them, Washington, D.C., and two Maryland counties affected by rising housing costs coordinated their increases in a regional effort that could prove a model for the Bay Area, Jacobs said. A move to boost wages of Los Angeles hotel workers to $15 an hour is moving ahead, leading to some "chatter" about an eventual citywide boost.

Jacobs is one of the authors of a study released Friday that analyzed Oakland's proposed hike and found that one-quarter of workers — up to 48,000 people — would directly or through a ripple effect receive a wage increase, and roughly 56,700 workers would receive paid sick days. Business operating costs would rise by an estimated 0.2% to 0.3% for retail and 2.7% to 2.9% for restaurants, it found.

Michael Tucker, president of Books Inc., a small bookseller with six stores in San Francisco, said he was relieved the initial labor-backed measure — which would have reached $15 an hour by next year — was altered. Still, he said, in an industry with thin margins that can't pass costs on to consumers, the increase would prove challenging.

"We're really in uncharted territory," he said. "There's a speculation that business will be booming. But will it really match the cost of labor?"

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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