Berkeley city council may vote on $19 minimum wage

This place has the highest minimum wage in America
This place has the highest minimum wage in America

On the same day of the largest nationwide strike calling for a $15 federal minimum wage, the City Council of Berkeley, California, will debate and possibly vote on a proposed city minimum wage of $19 an hour.

If approved, it would become the highest minimum wage in the country by far.

Berkeley's minimum wage just reset to $11 an hour, up from $10 previously. And it's set to rise again to $12.53 by October 2016.

The proposal before the City Council, put forth by the city's Labor Commission, would raise it to $13 an hour by October 2016 and then increase it by $1.50 a year until it reached $19 in 2020. Thereafter it would be adjusted for inflation.

The rationale: Workers need to earn a living wage and the cost of living in Berkeley has become very high, even for those with middle incomes.

The minimum wage at its current level "puts people in untenable positions of having to have two jobs," said Wendy Bloom a resident and registered nurse, who also chairs the Labor Commission.

Even then, Bloom said, it's tough to get by, especially as people working in Berkeley have to move farther and farther from their jobs because housing is so expensive.

The median home value is now $971,100 in Berkeley, and the median rent is north of $3,600, according to Zillow.

"You really can't live on $19 even," Bloom said.

Related: Fight for $15 stages biggest strike ever

Business owners, however, are concerned that raising the minimum wage by more than 50% could mean higher prices, fewer jobs for entry-level workers and some small businesses going belly up.

"You'll end up with a city of chain stores and restaurants instead of the mom-and-pop stores we all love," said Polly Armstrong, the CEO of the Berkeley Chamber of Commerce.

In light of business owners' concerns, the Chamber has put forth a counterproposal, which would raise the minimum from $11 today by 50 cents a year until it reached $15 by 2022 for big businesses. For small businesses -- those with 56 or fewer employees -- it would raise the minimum to $12 by October 2016 and then adjust it by inflation thereafter.

What will result from the meeting isn't clear.

The council may approve the $19 and disregard the Chamber's ideas.

Or council members could strike down the $19 proposal but still vote to raise the minimum wage, just not as high as $19.

If the council does not vote at all, labor activists may choose to put the question to voters in the next election. They've put together a ballot initiative calling for a $15 minimum wage by October 2017. Thereafter it would be increased by inflation plus 3% every year until it reaches $19.

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