Pushing for a Higher SF Minimum Wage

Community & Labor Push for Higher San Francisco Minimum Wage as Cost of Living Soars
Dyan Ruiz, Joseph Smooke | 04/09/2014

San Francisco’s new minimum wage could be highest in the country if passed on the November 2014 ballot. Community and labor groups that make up the Coalition for a Fair Economy are pushing for a higher minimum wage as rents in the San Francisco also top all other US cities. Hear from:

  • Low wage workers struggling to make ends meet despite working multiple jobs,
  • Community leaders who submitted a proposal for a $15 minimum wage along with better enforcement of worker protections for the local ballot, and
  • Author of a recently released book that looks at the economic impacts to San Francisco following the 2003 efforts to pass the then highest minimum wage.

Coalition for a Fair Economy includes the Progressive Workers Alliance, SF Rising, Alliance of Californians for Community Empowerment (ACCE) San Francisco, Unite Here Local 2, Jobs with Justice San Francisco, Service Employees International Union Local 1021 (SEIU)


Dyan Ruiz, [people. power. media] Reporter: “Nobody who works full time should be raising a family in poverty”– a statement repeated by President Obama as he campaigns for a higher federal minimum wage. The US economy is rebounding after the recession, but the rebound has helped a lot of top wage earners, while low-wage workers struggle with the increased cost of living. 

In San Francisco, the most expensive city in the US for rent, low wage workers have a hard time making ends meet, despite having the highest minimum wage in the US since 2004. With the average rent topping $3,000 a month in the city, many people like Raymundo Gutierrez can’t afford a room of their own. 

Raymundo shares a studio apartment with his four brothers. He makes $14/an hour at a job that’s close to full time and $15/ hr at a second part-time job. He works seven days a week and still struggles to pay his $480 portion for rent and to provide for his wife and son, who will soon be joining him from Mexico.

Raymundo Gutierrez, San Francisco Low Wage Worker: [translated from Spanish] Sometimes you don't have time for you family or for your children. When you have children you want to be able to dedicate at least two days to spend with them. Sometimes there isn't time and family members get bothered by the fact that you work so much, but if you don't work here it's hard, the rent is expensive, you have to buy things, you have to give your child money for school, for books, money for transportation, sometimes the money isn't enough. You get tired and stressed out.

Ruiz: San Francisco is increasingly a city of haves and have nots. Out of 100 US cities, San Francisco has the biggest growth in income disparity from 2007 to 2012, according to a Brookings Institution Study released in February.

San Francisco’s minimum wage is at $10.74/ hr. If you’re a minimum wage earner, and you’re renting a room for $1000 a month, working full-time will mean you spend 60% of your pre-tax income on rent. So you’re spending double what the federal government considers to be affordable with very little left for other basic expenses.

The Co-director of the workers rights organization, Young Workers United, hears every day how hard it is for workers to live in the city making minimum wage.

Josué Arguelles, Young Workers United, Co-Director: A lot of these folks are juggling 2 or 3 jobs, and they’re still making the minimum wage, still barely making enough to cover rent, child care and their groceries.

Ruiz: Industries that have a high concentration of minimum wage workers are restaurants and retail. Others such as the banking industry, have some people who are paid well but the janitor, the security guard and the secretary are paid much less.

San Francisco was one of the first cities to pass a local minimum wage law in 2003. Li Yi Wu was one of the workers who fought for this increase. She was earning close to minimum wage in a restaurant and struggling to make ends meet for her and her family. At the time, she lived in a single room occupancy hotel (or SRO unit).

Li Yi “Lily” Wu, San Francisco, Worker: Ten years ago I was living in a single room occupancy hotel and my son was three years old I was living with my husband and my son at an SRO you have to share a kitchen and a bathroom with people and you know that hygiene was really bad and because I had to share the kitchen with so many people it took me a long time to make dinner. It was very stressful living in an SRO. 

Ruiz: Lily was given a raise through the minimum wage ordinance passed 10 years ago. She now has a union job that has afforded her and her husband a home in San Francisco. She continues to speak out for better labor standards for all workers.

Since San Francisco raised the minimum wage in 2004, what’s been the effect on the economy?

The Chair of the UC Berkeley Labor Center co-edited a recently published book, When Mandates Work, that studied the impacts of improvements in wages and benefits for workers in San Francisco since the 1990s.

Ken Jacobs, UC Berkeley Labor Center, Chair:  San Francisco passed Prop L, the minimum wage 10 years ago, a few years later passed a health care spending requirement, paid sick leave. If we look what happened to employment in San Francisco during this period compared to the surrounding counties, overall employment follows the exact same patterns– goes up in good times down in the recessions comes back up. When we look at the lowest wage industries– restaurants being low wage industry with high labor share as part of their cost– San Francisco actually grew faster than the surrounding areas– about 17 close to 18 percent in San Francisco compared to 13 percent in surrounding Bay Area counties. 

Ruiz: Ken says there was no overall negative effect on employment numbers when wages were increased in San Francisco. He also says that raising the minimum wage can save businesses money in other areas.

Jacobs: You have lower turnover, people stay on the job longer which saves the employer money in terms of hiring costs, training costs, recruitment costs. People when people are paid better you also have lower absenteeism, fewer grievances, higher productivity, better customer service.

Ruiz: Increasing the minimum wage has been made more popular through movements like Occupy and protests by fast food workers and Walmart employees. There’s more highly educated people and older people who earn minimum wage, and the Great Recession took out many middle income jobs. There’s a public cost to a low minimum wage.

Jacobs: It turns out that over half of fast food workers in the United States, including people who work full-time, they and their family members are relying on public assistance to make ends meet because the wages are so low. 

Ruiz: The battle for a minimum wage closer to a living wage– or a wage that will better support people’s living expenses– is being fought across the US. Nationally, President Obama is calling for an increase to 10 dollars and 10 cents an hour.

Seven States plus the District of Columbia have already raised their minimum wages, and others have proposals in the works. In the Bay Area, the city of Richmond has approved a plan to what could be the highest in the country by 2017 at 12 dollars 30 cents an hour.

Moving the minimum wage higher in San Francisco has popular support. A recent David Binder Research poll said that nearly 60 percent of likely voters in the city support a $15 minimum wage.

Increasing the minimum wage can be achieved only by a ballot measure. Late last year, Mayor Lee announced that he wanted to seek an increase to San Francisco’s minimum wage on this November’s ballot. One thing he needs to contend with is the impact to city budget.

The city’s budget will feel the pinch from wage increases for some city and nonprofit workers. So community and labor groups want to make sure there’s no negative impacts to city contracts and services.

In the meantime, labor and community organizations working together as the Coalition for a Fair Economy are drafting their own measure, at $15/hour, and stronger provisions to make sure that new and existing wage laws are enforced. Despite a number of laws already on the books, wage theft, underpayment, and not complying with required health benefits are still daily occurrences.

The coalition is proposing that large companies would have to increase wages more quickly than smaller businesses, who would be given a longer timeline for increases. 

Some small business owners have spoken out with concerns that their profit margins are too small to handle an increase in wages. They may be forced to lay off workers or implement a hiring freeze. To Ken, the economic argument for having higher standards for bigger companies is compelling.

Jacobs: For example raising the minimum wage for Walmart across United States to $12 an hour would affect their price structure by no more than 1%. It's minimal cost, easily absorbed by the company and again with a tremendous impact on the workers.

Ruiz: Carlos Preciado works at just above minimum wage for a large clothing chain.

Carlos Preciado, San Francisco Minimum Wage Worker: It's really hard for me because like I love the city I would like to stay here but I can't. That's why I'm like living in Oakland. If the City of San Francisco like increased the minimum wage, it's going to benefit me a lot like oh like have extra money not… because I live check by check.

Ruiz: The minimum wage isn’t all the community is working on. For example, groups want to prevent employers from reducing the number of hours employees are scheduled to work. Then there’s proposals that tackle housing issues.

Jacobs: In order to address the problems in San Francisco there needs to be a range of policies– raise wages, address affordable housing, address evictions -- you kind of have to tackle it across the board. 

Ruiz: A functional economy depends on all types of workers. A higher minimum wage certainly helps to keep working class people living in the city.

Wu: You know sometimes I look at people who are making minimum wage now and I think of myself 10 years ago and I understand that when you make the minimum wage even if you make the minimum wage today, it’s not enough to survive. You’re kind of like living on the edge all the time and that was like myself 10 years ago. And 10 years later, I am much happier. I have a stable living condition and it was much better and that’s why I’m much happier now.