Higher Wages for San Diego Workers

San Diego becomes another California city increasing it's minimum wage.

For Biviana Lagunas, life in San Diego can be stressful. She gets up at 5:30 a.m. on weekdays. An hour later, she starts her $9 hourly job as a cashier at San Diego State University, where she studies full time. By 2 p.m., her classes are underway and they end five hours later. In the evening, she stays up until 1 a.m. to finish class assignments. When she can, she helps her parents and younger sister and brother, who gets sick.

“Sometimes, I am so tired I can’t concentrate at school,” Lagunas said. “I worry. Are we going to have enough food? Are we going to have enough money for rent? These are the worries I have at age 21.”

For Lagunas and about 172,000 workers in San Diego, some relief is on the way with the newly-passed $11.50 minimum wage which provides more stability for working families in “America’s Finest City.” Supporters say it will put an average of $1,400 more per year into the hands of hourly workers in the city.

The San Diego City Council on Monday approved the higher wage by a vote of 6 to 3. The wage will grow to $9.75 on Jan. 1, 2015 and hit $11.50 on Jan. 1, 2017. It will be indexed to inflation starting in 2019. No business or industry in the city will be exempt, according to the office of Todd Gloria, president of the San Diego City Council and a key supporter.

For now, California’s minimum wage of $9 per hour is in effect.

Supporters, including Raise Up San Diego, families and some businesses, say the $9 wage – which is $1,560 per month for one person – is not enough in a city where housing can be expensive.

“The average monthly rent is $1,354, making it nearly impossible for minimum wage workers to afford even basic essentials, like food, transportation and child care,” Raise Up San Diego, a coalition of supporters, said.

As the country’s eighth most populous city, San Diego becomes one of the most recent to address the national debate of what hourly workers and their supporters say is pay that fails to keep up with living costs.

What is perplexing and frustrating, they add, is that no person who works 40 hours a week in the United States should live in poverty – a topic that has gained recent national attention.

Earlier this year, an effort to raise the federal minimum wage died in the U.S. Senate.

On Saturday, more than 1,300 fast-food workers gathered in suburban Chicago to step up efforts for higher pay and union representation. In June, the Seattle City Council made history by becoming the first in the country to approve a $15 hourly wage.

In Silicon Valley, which has booming real estate prices, San Jose raised its hourly pay. The $10 minimum wage went into effect last year. San Francisco voters will decide in November whether they will follow Seattle on increasing pay for low-wage workers.

For San Diego, a city with nearly 1.4 million residents and a poverty rate of 15 percent, the ordinance also gives about 279,000 workers the opportunity for earned sick leave, according to the Center on Policy Initiatives.

That comes as additional relief for Lagunas. She worries about her mom who works as a room service employee at a San Diego hotel. “Every time my mom gets sick, she either loses a day of pay or we’re late on the rent again,” she said.

While wage supporters are celebrating, San Diego Mayor Kevin Faulconer has vowed to veto the ordinance, arguing that it hurts small businesses.

“As mayor, my job is to cultivate an atmosphere that creates economic opportunities and good-paying jobs for all San Diegans,” he said in a statement.

“This ordinance puts our job growth in jeopardy and will lead to higher prices and layoffs for San Diego families…. We should be looking for ways to create more jobs, not putting up roadblocks to opportunities.”

The San Diego Regional Chamber of Commerce has echoed that sentiment. One chamber member, who owns a medium-sized business, has said the wage issue would affect hiring.

Supporters, though, point to San Jose as evidence that a city can continue to do well and pay low-wage workers more money.

Lagunas questions the mayor’s call for new jobs. “The jobs that he is going to create are what, giving us poverty wages?” she said. “There is a problem if we have two or three jobs and we can’t live here.”

Supporters of a higher wage learned at a face-to-face meeting on Friday with the mayor of his opposition. Later, they issued a volley of statements, expressing disappointment.

“People living in such poverty, it is not right. We are a country and city of opportunity,” Rabbi Laurie Coskey, executive director of the Interfaith Center for Worker Justice, said.

“America is based on the ideal that everyone should have a chance to succeed and that everyone who works hard and plays by the rules should be able to at least pull themselves out of poverty,” said Jessie Thomas, a 28-year-old waitress and student.

Lagunas attended the meeting, shook hands with Faulconer and told him about her family and what they are experiencing.

“He didn’t address the struggle I shared with him,” she said. “I was truly disappointed. I appreciate the fact that he gave us time.”

Whether the veto occurs and what happens after that remains to be seen.

The Monday passage, as Gloria has said, makes the wage ordinance “veto proof” because six votes are needed to override such a move.  Should a veto occur, Gloria will ask the City Council to vote again on the issue.

One option that looms in the future: Opponents of a higher wage can put the issue on the ballot and ask voters to overturn it.

For now, Lagunas is proceeding on the presumption that the ordinance will take effect. Supporters are labeling it a major policy win for workers.

“People aren’t seeing this unless they live this struggle,” Lagunas said. “I feel that the American Dream is only for some people.

What is on her mind, though, is having quality time to focus on college and her family.

“I’d love to get my master’s degree and my doctorate,” she said. “I’m planning on doing some counseling in correctional facilities.”

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