By Steven Tavares.
Union members gathered for a group photo in front of the council dais and chanted si se puede following the San Leandro City Council’s approval Tuesday night of an ordinance that will raise its minimum wage to $15 by 2020.
A similar minimum wage ordinance was approved by the council in July that included a one-year exemption for small businesses. Upon a second reading July 19 the amendment was removed by the council to the consternation of some small business owners.
Under San Leandro’s ordinance, the city’s minimum wage will rise from $10 an hour to $12 starting in July 2017 and rise $1 a year until reaching $15 in 2020. The timetable allows the city to hit $15 nearly two years before the state’s mandate of 2022. A final reading of the ordinance is scheduled for later this month.
The minimum wage issue in San Leandro has engendered great passion from the public and many members of the council, but none more than Councilmember Jim Prola. For the third straight meeting involving the minimum wage ordinance, Prola gave a vigorous defense of the proposed legislation that included numerous comments he received from constituents describing their plight and inability to find suitable wages in the city.
Despite supporting the minimum wage hike from the beginning, Prola initially sought a much quicker path toward $15 than the proposal approved Tuesday. While other cities, like Berkeley, are scheduled to arrive at $15 earlier than 2020, Prola said, “we’re lagging behind, but that’s what the compromise was.”
In an uncharacteristic exchange, Prola and Councilmember Benny Lee, who voted to abstain, briefly sparred. Lee maintains small businesses, especially those owned by minorities, will suffer from the minimum wage ordinance. “I hope I’m wrong, but the first ones who are going to be impacted are minorities,” said Lee. He later referenced a spate of small businesses in Oakland’s Chinatown that shuttered following that city’s wage increase two years ago.
But Prola strongly disagreed. “Councilmember Lee is wrong in his facts,” Prola shot back. “He’s entitled to his opinion, but he’s not entitled to the wrong facts.” Oakland businesses, Prola countered, increased employment. “Every study shows—in San Francisco, Oakland—whenever this has taken place it has benefited businesses.” Lee then attempted a retort, but yielded after San Leandro Mayor Pauline Cutter politely advised him to relent.
As one of the councilmembers previously on the fence regarding the specific proposal, Cutter acknowledged, “People are clamoring for a minimum wage.” She added, the city could be amendable to helping small businesses prepare for the wage increase. For instance, by potentially lowering business license fees to shift some burden from small businesses to the city, said Cutter. “That is something that we can still look at.”
Throughout Tuesday’s meeting, the city’s business community registered skepticism over the ordnance. The San Leandro Chamber of Commerce said, instead, it supports the new state law signed by Gov. Jerry Brown slowly increasing the minimum wage to $15 by 2022. Numerous small business owners, clad in blue t-shirts Tuesday night, said the wage increase will unduly effect many who already struggle to keep their doors open.
Steve Song, a representative from F.H. Dailey, a San Leandro car dealership, said he understands workers are struggling, but “let’s consider how hard it is for small business owners.” Employees, he said, can rely on unemployment insurance to briefly stay afloat. If small business owners fail, he continued, “they lose everything.”
Despite the pressure from the business community, the council appeared swayed by the flood of emails and great public attention brought on by the minimum wage issue in San Leandro.
Councilmember Lee Thomas, who, aside from Prola, has emerged as one of the strongest voices for working people in the city, said, “If my vote is to fail and collapse businesses in San Leandro, then I will live with it. But I will also live with the fact that I knew that I gave people a fighting chance here to make a living.”