A minimum wage increase for Long Beach health care employees will have to wait until 2024 after the City Council voted Tuesday night to direct the city attorney’s office to prepare to place it on the ballot before voters during the next regularly scheduled election.

The council had originally approved the $25-per-hour minimum wage by ordinance in August after the initiative, which was backed by the Service Employees International Union-United Healthcare Workers West, turned in enough qualified signatures to election officials to qualify for this year’s Nov. 8 election.

Councilmembers opted to adopt the increase outright instead of placing it before voters earlier this month, with some members saying that the number of signatures gathered showed the electorate supported the increase and that the cost—about $150,000 to place the issue on the ballot—was too much.

The increase, which would have applied to all employees of private health care facilities including nurse assistants, landscapers and cafeteria workers, was placed on pause after a coalition of hospitals turned in enough qualifying signatures for a referendum on the issue.

Councilmembers had three options before them Tuesday night: repeal the ordinance, place it on the March 2024 ballot or call a special election next year so voters could decide the issue sooner. The city clerk’s office said the current estimate for a special election is about $8.6 million.

“It would be outside of our normal schedule,” said City Clerk Monique de la Garza. “It would be a stand-alone election with no opportunity for cost-sharing with any other cities or the county that might be participating in that election date in any way.”

Los Angeles County administers Long Beach elections, and the cost estimate includes the printing of all election material for over 270,000 registered voters, having election centers open for multiple days and the administration of the vote count.

Expensive special elections and recounts could be the new normal for Long Beach after voters overwhelmingly voted in favor of aligning city elections with the state’s cycle going forward. Measure LBC, which was on last week’s ballot, currently has 75% approval and would put Long Beach on a March-November cycle in presidential election cycles and a June-November cycle in gubernatorial cycles.

Maky Peters, an organizer with SEIU-UHW, thanked the council for its vote earlier this year and asked them to place it on the 2024 ballot. Peters compared the hospital group’s referendum to one that the oil industry is currently pursuing to undo an oil well setback bill adopted by the state earlier this year, which was authored by state Sen. Lena Gonzalez, D-Long Beach.

Peters said that direct democracy should work to protect ordinary residents, not corporations trying to protect their bottom lines.

Calling a special election would have been difficult for the city, considering its current projected deficit for next year of about $40 million. With the council kicking off the process to put the issue on the March 2024 ballot, the proposed $25 hourly minimum wage will now be placed on hold until voters decide.

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Jason Ruiz covers City Hall and politics for the Long Beach Post. Reach him at [email protected] or @JasonRuiz_LB on Twitter.