Activists outnumber business owners at L.A. County minimum wage forums

Activists outnumber business owners at L.A. County minimum wage forums
More than a thousand L.A. County homecare workers march downtown to call for a hike in the minimum wage to $15 per hour earlier this month. (Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)

At the first three in a series of forums for small businesses to weigh in on the effects of raising the minimum wage in unincorporated areas of Los Angeles County, business owners were significantly outnumbered by activists advocating for the increase.

County supervisors voted last month to follow the footsteps of the city of Los Angeles in studying the idea of raising the minimum wage in unincorporated areas from $9 an hour to $13.25 or $15.25.

Supervisor Don Knabe requested that a series of forums be held for business owners as part of the study.

At a Thursday night forum held at East Los Angeles College in Monterey Park, nine of the roughly three dozen people who spoke said they were business owners. Even fewer had businesses in unincorporated county areas. The ratio was still more skewed at a forum in Marina del Rey on April 21 and at one in the unincorporated community of Lennox on Monday night. At Monday's forum, only three of 34 speakers were business owners.

Activists with the Raise the Wage Coalition rallied members to speak at the events. Many of the proponents of the increase who spoke were homecare workers, who would not be covered if the county were to increase the minimum wage for employees of unincorporated area businesses and for the county's own workforce, but who are separately pushing to have their pay raised from $9.65 to $15 an hour.

There were other low-wage workers, such as Mayra Flores, a McDonald's employee who earns $9 an hour and spoke at the Monterey Park forum. Flores said it's not enough to keep her family afloat.

"I'm a single mother, and it's really hard for me to support a 5-year-old with $9 an hour," she said.

Most of the business owners who did speak cautioned against an increase or asked that it be phased in gradually.

Eddie Torres of the East Los Angeles Chamber of Commerce said many business owners in unincorporated East Los Angeles are concerned about the proposed increase. He said it could drive businesses away.

"Be very careful, because $15 an hour is not $15 an hour after you do the workman's comp and all the taxes," he said.

Luis Hernandez, who said he owns three gas stations in downtown Los Angeles, Montebello and Hacienda Heights, said he makes only 25 to 30 cents for each gallon sold.

"At this moment we cannot afford to give a minimum wage increase," he said. "I don't mind an increase, but a little at a time. But I do love my employees, and they are the best people I've met."

Hernandez got applause from the crowd.

Another business owner, Jackie Bender of Duna Designs, which designs and manufactures knitwear, got boos and hisses when she told the audience members, some of whom had spoken through a translator, "Take advice from me. There's going to be a lot of competition out there. Learn to speak English."

Brian Stiger, director of the county's Department of Consumer and Business Affairs, which organized the forums, said mailers about the forums had been sent to all of the 7,000 or so businesses licensed in unincorporated county areas.

Stiger said he was unsure why so few business owners had attended the forums.

"We got it out there," he said. "I think it's great that the board has asked us to go out in the community where people are and get their comments."

Ruben Gonzalez, senior vice president of public policy and political affairs for the Los Angeles Area Chamber of Commerce, who spoke at the first forum, cautioned against reading too much into the turnout.

"It's much easier to take a van or a bus to pick up a lot of bodies at a labor hall than it is for a small business owner to close up shop to go to a public hearing," he said. "The conversation should be about the quality and substance of the concerns raised by the business community, not about the quantity of folks about to turn out in the middle of their busy lives."

The county analysis will be conducted by the Los Angeles County Economic Development Corp. and will begin with a review of three recently completed studies of the city's proposed minimum wage increase, which reached divergent conclusions about whether and to what extent it would help or hurt the economy.


Follow Abby Sewell on Twitter at @sewella for more county news.