Organized labor won an important victory Tuesday when the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors voted to increase the minimum wage to $15, but it now faces a more daunting political challenge: convincing other local governments to join the movement.
The widely anticipated move by the nation’s largest local government applies to unincorporated areas and hundreds of thousands of employees, mirroring a similar action by the city of Los Angeles. Within a few years, more than half of the countywide workforce will be guaranteed a base income more than 60% higher than the current state-mandated $9 an hour.
Santa Monica and West Hollywood are considering their own wage hikes. But many other local cities — including economic powerhouses Glendale, Pasadena, Santa Clarita, Torrance and Long Beach — have yet to decide whether to boost wages.
Some economists, business owners and public officials warn that a patchwork of local pay policies could set off economically disruptive competition for workers and job-producing employers.
Palmdale Mayor Jim Ledford said his city was still recovering from the recession and couldn’t afford a wage hike. He said some businesses in nearby unincorporated communities had voiced concern about the county’s wage boost and inquired about having their areas annexed by the city to avoid increased labor costs.
“I think it will put those businesses at a distinct disadvantage and people will now shop” in Palmdale, he said.
Supervisor Michael D. Antonovich, whose district includes the desert city, argued a similar point during Tuesday’s debate on the wage proposal.
In county-controlled areas, “it reduces a business' competitive advantage,” he said. “Especially in unincorporated areas that are literally across the street from incorporated cities.”
Pasadena Mayor Terry Tornek said elected officials there would begin discussions next week on a process to consider a wage increase.
“We should be supportive of this regional effort,” Tornek said, adding that Pasadena chose to wait until L.A. city and county acted. “I thought they could do a lot of the homework, quite frankly, so we didn’t have to reinvent the wheel.”
Officials in other cities said the base wage should be set on a statewide or national basis, rather than piecemeal by individual cities. In Torrance, where city officials haven’t discussed raising minimum pay, Mayor Pat Furey said establishing pay requirements municipality by municipality “pits us against one another.”
In Glendale, Mayor Ara Najarian said his city is in “wait-and-see mode.”
“Glendale is fortunate enough to be in the situation where we can sit back and watch this measure take effect [in L.A. city and county-administered communities] and actually have empirical evidence as to what the impact is,” he said.
Chris Tilly, director of the UCLA Institute for Research on Labor and Employment, said the county’s move puts “both economic and political pressure” on smaller cities in Los Angeles County.
Areas with a higher minimum wage, he said, will attract “the most talented of the low end of the work force” away from lower-wage areas. Some manufacturing operations could move to areas with cheaper labor costs, he said, but restaurant and retail businesses that choose sites based on customer demand aren’t likely to relocate.
On the political side, he said, “Certainly more liberal mayors are going to feel pressure to show they’re at least as enlightened as Los Angeles and the county.”
Under the county plan, approved on a split vote with two Republican board members opposed, all workers would reach at least a $15 an hour minimum by 2021, tracking the city of Los Angeles.
Backers hope the combined actions by California’s two largest local governments reach a political tipping point and help accelerate the adoption of similar policies not just in the region, but across the nation.
“It's been decades and decades of work trying to convince American society that it makes sense to pay everyone a fair wage,” said Westside and San Fernando Valley Supervisor Sheila Kuehl, who led the push for the county increase.
East county Supervisor Hilda Solis, who along with central county Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas joined Kuehl in the majority approving the wage raise, said it was a “historic day for the county.”
L.A. Mayor Eric Garcetti, who has been trying to rally cities surrounding Los Angeles to join the move to a higher base pay, urged the supervisors to approve the proposal. “The nation is watching what we do here in Los Angeles as a region,” he said.
Antonovich and coastal and south county Supervisor Don Knabe opposed the higher wage plan, arguing it would adversely affect businesses in unincorporated communities, which make up the majority of the county’s land mass.
Knabe joined the majority in approving a $15 minimum wage for the county’s 100,000 employees. The board also adopted increased base wages for county contractors and agreed to explore the creation of an enforcement program to ensure workers are properly compensated.
Before the vote, union members and other supporters packed the downtown Hall of Administration board room, carrying signs and clad in T-shirts reading “Fight for $15.”
David Green, a union representative for county social workers, said low-paid workers “end up in long lines of our already overburdened social services system.”
Though business representatives opposed the wage increase, some thanked the supervisors for moving to set up a small business team to develop programs to ease the transition to higher minimum wages, such as waiving business permit fees.
At Casa Córdoba, a restaurant on the edge of Glendale near the unincorporated area of Montrose, where Spanish music filled a dining room floored with colorfully patterned tiles, head chef Cole Brisco, 30, said he expected the county vote to trigger a ripple effect of higher costs for the restaurant, whether or not Glendale follows suit.
Suppliers of produce, seafood, meat and alcohol based in Los Angeles city and county will probably pass on the expense of the wage increase to restaurant owners, he said. “I don't expect a company to take a loss out of the goodness of their heart,” Brisco said.
Sung Won Sohn, an economist at Cal State Channel Islands, said municipalities that do not raise the minimum wage could entice companies to relocate within their boundaries. But the increased demand for labor would probably lead to a rise in the minimum wage in those communities, Sohn said, though not likely as high as $15 an hour.
“In purely economic terms, it's simply a matter of supply and demand,” he said.
Follow Abby Sewell on Twitter at @sewella for more county news.