Blocked by a voter’s referendum from freezing the city’s minimum wage at $15/hour for small businesses, the Emeryville City Council opted on Tuesday evening to delay making any decision on the matter until its next meeting on July 23. Despite strong statements from ten public commenters, all but one of whom were opposed to the wage cut, the council entertained no discussion of its own. Under state law, the city must either repeal its action to freeze the minimum wage, or place the question on a future municipal ballot for voters to decide.
“Emeryville has been a leader in the Bay Area and nationally in improving the quality of low-wage jobs,” said East Bay Alliance for a Sustainable Economy Lead Strategic Researcher Divya Sundar during public comment. “But the decision to deny restaurant workers their long-anticipated wage increase based only on the subjective input of a few business owners is deeply biased and misinformed.”
“The National Restaurant Association has been around 150 years, since Emancipation, when it first demanded the right to hire newly-freed slaves, not pay them anything at all, and have them live entirely on customer tips, which is the origin of tips as wage replacement and the exemption for restaurant workers from the minimum wage,” said Restaurant Opportunities Centers United President Saru Jayaraman. “Emeryville should not regress on an issue that California has long held dear, which is that it rejects this legacy of slavery.”
The East Bay city of Emeryville, population 12,000, has since July 1 the highest minimum wage in the United States, $16.30/hour. This minimum wage increased from $15 to $16.30/hour for small businesses and from $15.59 to $16.30/hour for large businesses. These increases were set unanimously by the City Council in May 2015, but after intense lobbying, business owners were able to convince John Bauters, Scott Donahue, and Dianne Martinez to vote for an amendment on May 29 freezing the minimum wage at $15/hour for another year and maintain two different minimum wages for small and large businesses until 2027. Mayor Ally Media and Vice-Mayor Christian Patz, who support the higher $16.30/hour wage, voted against the amendment.
A voter’s referendum petition that gathered 871 valid voter signatures in 27 days blocked the wage freeze amendment from taking effect, so Emeryville’s minimum wage rose to $16.30/hour on July 1. Now the City Council would have to place the wage freeze (which would actually now mean lowering the minimum wage from $16.30 to $15/hour) on a future city ballot and gain approval from a majority of city voters in order for it to take effect.
“I urge the city council to not lower the minimum wage for restaurant workers in Emeryville,” said social worker Cynthia Landry. “The loophole put into the Minimum Wage Ordinance [on May 29] cuts the pay of these community members by 8 percent. But there is no delay in increases in rent, food costs, and utilities costs. All of these are going up.”
Mayor Medina’s action on Tuesday to delay any decision for another two weeks may be to buy time to convince at least one other council member to switch their vote on July 23, thus retaining the $16.30/hour minimum wage for all businesses and keeping the issue off any future ballot. Asking your city’s voters if the poorest workers should take an 8 percent pay cut amidst a historic housing catastrophe is not likely to be popular.