A referendum to block a minimum wage increase to $25 an hour for health care workers in Long Beach has qualified for the ballot, which could put the wage increase on hold until at least 2024.
The City Council approved the wage increase after an initiative by the Service Employees International Union-United Healthcare Workers West received enough certified signatures to qualify for Tuesday’s ballot. City leaders in August, however, said they would rather adopt the measure as an ordinance than pay the cost of adding it to the ballot to let voters decide.
However, opponents of the measure—including area hospitals like St. Mary Medical Center and Long Beach Memorial—began their own signature-gathering effort to get the wage increase overturned. Opponents submitted 40,000 signatures to stop the law from taking effect.
The City Clerk’s office confirmed Monday that 31,224 signatures were verified by county election officials. Citywide measures only need 26,829 verified signatures to qualify for the ballot.
Wage increases will now be paused until voters weigh in, but because there are no local or regional elections in the immediate future, the vote will likely be pushed to 2024.
The City Council could call a special election to speed up the process, but that could cost as much as $8.6 million, according to the City Clerk’s office. If the council had voted to place the issue on Tuesday’s ballot, it was projected to cost the city between $100,000 and $150,000.
Assistant City Clerk Allison Bunma said that the estimated cost is due to the number of things the city would have to pay the county to do, like having vote centers and drop boxes distributed across the city and the printing and processing of ballots for the over 270,000 registered voters in the city.
The council is expected to discuss options for the referendum at its Nov. 15 meeting.
The ordinance would have increased pay for all employees who work at all private health care facilities, including janitors, cafeteria workers and nursing assistants who currently make less than $25 per hour. Industry representatives said the raises were arbitrary and unfair because it did not raise wages for all employees. Government-operated facilities would have been exempt.
“The ordinance is unequal and unfair for workers, and dangerous for our community,” George W. Greene, president and CEO of the Hospital Association of Southern California said in the statement. “By signing the petition, thousands of Long Beach voters expressed their desire to have the final say on this issue.”
An economic analysis on the wage increase projected that about 58 jobs would be lost in the short term while wage increases in the millions would be seen by those who kept their jobs. However, the analysis said that long-term effects could include stagnation in affected job classes and the potential closure of facilities in the city.
Similar referendums have halted SEIU-UHW’s efforts in cities like Los Angeles and Downey. Duarte and Inglewood’s elected leaders opted to put the issue on Tuesday night’s ballot. Monterey Park also opted to place the issue on the ballot in 2024 after being sued by the opposition group.
Long Beach voters will decide which vote-cycle the city stays on in Tuesday’s election. Measure LBC could permanently align the city with the state’s election cycle, which is March and November in presidential election years, and June and November in gubernatorial election years.
The city’s charter says elections should be held in April and June in even years, and if Measure LBC does not pass the city would revert back to that cycle. The city estimates that having to conduct its own elections again would cost about $1.3 million more per year than it’s currently paying the county, and an additional $2.5 million to purchase new voting machines and to train staff.
The city could save about $900,000 this year since the wage increase is now on pause. Enforcing the wage increase is the city’s responsibility and was estimated to cost about $1.2 million annually.