Ninth District Councilman Rex Richardson speaks to a crowd outside City Hall before the council voted in favor of a minimum wage increase study. Photos by Jason Ruiz.
Long Beach officially launched itself into the center of the national minimum wage discussion last night, after the city council voted unanimously to approve a report that will explore the benefits and risks of raising wages across the city. The report, which is expected to take about 60 days to complete, could ultimately decide if the city joins others in the region in establishing a higher city-wide minimum wage.
The motion, authored by Vice Mayor Suja Lowenthal with support from council members Lena Gonzalez, Dee Andrews and Rex Richardson, asks for an assessment of how raising the wage would impact the city and how breaks in fees and other provisions might be put in place to help local businesses comply with a wage increase.
The report will be conducted by the Los Angeles County Economic Development Corporation (LAEDC), the same group that assisted the County of Los Angeles prior to its move to raise its minimum wage.
Before the meeting started, council members joined an assembly of protestors outside City Hall and pledged their support for raising the minimum wage within the city.
Standing in front of a large group of protestors and community organizers holding signs reading “Raise the Wage” and chanting support for a $15 an hour minimum wage, the council members gave brief explanations of why they’d be voting in support of the study that could set them down the same path as larger cities like Los Angeles, Seattle and San Diego, all of which have recently increased their minimum wages.
“We have gone on far too long with wages that are depressed, that are compressed and that are not fair to workers,” Seventh District Councilman Roberto Uranga said. “What we’re doing here tonight is we’re going to get a study done. Actually, I wish we could make a decision tonight, and I think we should make a decision tonight to raise wages because we’ve been long overdue in regard to paying our workers below poverty level.”
Richardson, trying to dispel any notion that only teenagers work for minimum wage, rattled off statistics supporting his belief that raising the wage would have an enormous impact on the city because of the sheer amount of people it could potentially affect. Hitting on the topic of wage theft, Richardson said it’s not enough to just pay people more, the city needs to make sure they’re actually receiving that pay, too.
“The average age of someone on minimum wage is 35 years old,” Richardson said. “The average person on minimum wage is supporting two children. It’s equally important that we raise the wage and create more fairness as it is that we enforce the wages that we raise.”
The public issue of the study and the potential impact on both workers and business owners drew hundreds of people to the council chambers. Shortly before the 5:00PM meeting, a line snaked its way from the entrance to City Hall past the library, with many people still standing outside or in overflow seating, while the motion was deliberated.
Representatives from the Long Beach Area Chamber of Commerce and other business associations in the city were on hand to voice support of the study, so long as it is comprehensive and takes into account both the affect that it can have on businesses already existing in the city and ones that could potentially open in the future.
Several local business owners were also on hand to have their voices heard by the council before a vote was taken.
Larie Semon, who owns Olives Gourmet Grocer and the recently opened Taste wine-beer-kitchen was more than happy to wait in line to get in because, as a business owner, she felt it important that the council know how a wage raise would affect her Belmont Shore storefronts.
Although the study will include an exploration of certain provisions that could help small business owners like Semon adhere to a possible wage increase, she said it would most likely make her less competitive with businesses in surrounding cities that don’t have higher minimum wages. She said she’d be forced to raise her prices, which could drive business away and eventually could force her to close her doors.
“As a business owner, my workman’s comp goes up, my taxes as well, as the wages and that could potentially put me out of business because I can’t absorb that kind of increase,” Semon said. “Why would a municipality want to create a minimum wage when there are 470 something of them in the state of California? It should be a state issue, not a local issue.”
While she wouldn’t put a number on what the starting wage at either of her businesses is, Semon said that it reflects the skill-set and experience of the person earning it. She did note that she has several employees who have been with Olives for about a decade, stating that morale must be all right if people were willing to stick with the company for so long. She said raising wages would most likely force her to raise her expectations during the hiring process.
“Our salaries are based on what the people have to offer me,” Semon said. “A chef that’s been to culinary school and has been a chef for multiple years is not going to get minimum wage. Somebody who has a lower skill set is going to start at minimum wage but they grow up into upper wages. If it’s $15 an hour, am I ever going to hire a teenage kid for the summer?”
One woman had a much darker forecast for the city as a whole, if the wages are to be increased.
“Long Beach will never be able to overcome their image of not being [business] friendly if they pass this,” she said. “Long Beach is a small business community, it has been my entire life and it still is. You can count on both hands the number of large corporations that are in the city of Long Beach. This is not Los Angeles, this is not Seattle. This is Long Beach, California. Small business community.”
Chando Kim, a student at Long Beach City College (LBCC), shared his and his father's experiences while working in the restaurant industry in this city. The Cambodian immigrant said his dad was employed at a local Chinese restaurant, where he often worked 12 hours a day and was paid $3 an hour.
Kim, who works at La Lune Palace, a Cambodian restaurant near Long Beach Airport, said that like his father, he is also subject to long hours with no time for breaks or overtime pay. He said the council acting to possibly put more money in people’s wallets is an important first step to helping improving the lives of the people that live in the city.
“Money doesn’t buy happiness, but it certainly helps alleviate stress,” Kim said. “When you don’t have to think about bills you can maybe think about taking a vacation. I think it will really help with the mental health of people to not have to think about money for a change.”
For Jerry Stinson, senior minister emeritus at First Congregational Church of Long Beach, the actions of the council dealt less with an economic question and with more of a morality question. Stinson recalled the push-back against Prop N, which raised the wages of hotel workers with opponents saying the move would close businesses and even take police off the streets. None of that happened, Stinson pointed out, before imploring the council to proceed with the study.
“Those of us in faith communities see the issue of a living wage as a moral and spiritual issue. Our tradition in sacred texts, whether its the Quran, Torah or the Christian scriptures, call for justice and making sure that workers are not locked into poverty,” Stinson said. “I hope as you continue this process you will listen to those who bring you lots of facts and figures but don’t lose site of the moral imperative of a just minimum wage.”
Lowenthal said that raising wages doesn’t just affect workers, it affects the city because low wages have contributed to tax dollars being spent reactively on health and housing related issues as well as emergency services. Calling Long Beach a tale of two cities in regard to economics, she said the divide between the haves and have-nots has been apparent to many council members for a long time.
She denounced the idea that the issue was being taken up because of a regional push to raise the wages, with the city trying to follow in the footsteps of Los Angeles or other cities undertaking the same process.
“This council is honestly looking at this issue, not just to follow suit with what other cites are doing, but really just to look at this issue and see what’s good for Long Beach,” Lowenthal said. “We don’t believe that what’s good for workers is mutually exclusive from what’s good for business.”
If the report comes back with numbers supporting a council vote to increase the minimum wage, it appears likely that they would. Of those who spoke, only Fifth District Councilwoman Stacy Mungo alluded to the fact that she would be unsupportive of what the study may find. One of the most telling comments delivered last night came from Third District Councilwoman Suzie Price, who echoed the sentiments made by Uranga while speaking to the protestors earlier in the night, that if the opportunity had presented itself, a higher minimum wage very well could’ve passed last night.
“I think anyone that has been following council and can count would be able to conclude right now that the policy would probably pass today if it was presented as a sort of legislative change for the City of Long Beach,” Price said. “I think that the mayor is trying to bring us all together so that we can communicate and have a conversation that calls for a balanced approach so that when the legislation affects the City of Long Beach, it impacts the city in a very balanced and fair way.”