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Emeryville City Council Cancels Effort to Freeze Minimum Wage

Blocked by a voter referendum from freezing the minimum wage at $15/hour for restaurant workers for another year, the Emeryville City Council voted 5-0 on Tuesday to abandon the effort. The city’s minimum wage for all workers was scheduled to rise from $15 to $16.30/hour on July 1, 2019 until three members of the city council caved to pressure from restaurant owners and voted for the wage freeze on May 29.

“Today in Emeryville the minimum wage is $16.30. If you were to place the referendum on the ballot, you’d be asking the voters to lower the minimum wage for some restaurant employees,” explained resident Judith Epstein during public comment at the meeting. “I urge you not to follow such an unfair and misguided approach, but rather rescind the ordinance tonight.”

“Frankly, this whole episode has been shameful,” said another resident who didn’t identify himself. “You’ve harmed our city’s reputation as being a progressive and forward-thinking city.”

California state law allows the residents of any local jurisdiction to block any ordinance approved by its city or county council, provided that ten percent of all registered voters who live there sign a referendum petition within 30 days. In Emeryville this hurdle was easily cleared by over 200 voter signatures, with assistance from Service Employees International Union (SEIU) Local 1021 and East Bay Working Families. This petition prevented the wage freeze from taking effect, so on July 1 Emeryville’s minimum wage for all workers became $16.30/hour. This forced the City Council into a position that no member could accept – asking voters to actually lower the minimum wage for some workers in the November 2020 elections by a staggering 8 percent.

“We are where we’re supposed to be at $16.30 and I don’t know that the expense of going to the voters to change that is worthwhile,” said Vice-Mayor Christian Patz, who voted against the wage freeze carve-out in May.

“We want to support low-wage workers, we want to support everybody’s ability to live in this very difficult economy in the Bay Area right now,” said Mayor Ally Medina, who has spoken strongly in favor of raising wages for years and also voted against the wage freeze in May.

“I think we should do the least harm. This vote is different than the other vote and so the least harm now is to repeal,” stated City Council member Scott Donahue, referring to his May 29 vote to freeze the minimum wage at $15/hour for another year. Donahue declined to explain how denying a wage increase for the city’s poorest workers, as he originally supported, would “do the least harm”.

“I would never vote to roll a wage back,” claimed council member John Bauters, who introduced the wage freeze ordinance in May. “It is important that we put people first and that people at this point deserve and expect the certainty that they make $16.30.”

Emeryville’s Minimum Wage Ordinance raises wages every July 1 according to the regional rate of inflation, currently at about 3 percent per year. However the city now estimates that its minimum wage will rise by only 12 cents to $16.42/hour on July 1, 2020 – an increase of just 0.7 percent.