Fast-food workers make $20 an hour. California's other low-wage earners ask: What about us?

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Stephon Harris makes $16.35 an hour at the Rancho San Miguel Market, ringing customers up for pints of fresh salsas and masa.

A few hundred feet away, at a Jack in the Box drive-through, workers are making about $4 more an hour thanks to California’s mandatory $20 minimum wage for fast-food employees that kicked in last month.

“I would like to make that,” Harris, 21, said as he assisted customers.

He is among California’s low-wage workers who are left out of sector-specific minimum wages recently approved by the Legislature, with hospital workers — including gift shop cashiers and cleaners — set to get at least $25 an hour under another similarly hard-fought deal in the state Capitol.

Harris, who lives with his parents and says the grocery store job is temporary, isn’t mad. He just wants in, too.

“In fast food, you have to deal with a lot. People are more rude to you,” he said. “But everybody wants to make more. Sixteen dollars an hour is definitely not enough if you’re trying to support a family.”

The fast-food and healthcare wage requirements join a separate patchwork of mandates ordered by some California cities that require employers to pay more than the state’s $16 hourly minimum wage.

Now workers like Harris, still making the standard minimum, are asking: What about us?

“Clearly the Legislature understands that some workers deserve $20, so they must understand that everybody deserves $20,” said Saru Jayaraman, president of One Fair Wage, a national organization calling for higher salaries in the service sector.

Jayaraman, who is also director of the Food Labor Research Center at UC Berkeley, led a rally outside the Capitol in Sacramento last week, calling for a statewide $20 minimum wage for all. She acknowledged the proposal is a “heavy lift” even in liberal, pro-union California, with business owners warning they can’t afford the extra costs and the state facing a budget deficit that the governor’s office estimated is more than $37 billion.

Some restaurant and retail workers, school staff and child-care providers are among those making the lowest wages in California. They are now tempted to leave jobs for fast food or healthcare, which could exacerbate staffing shortages that never rebounded from the pandemic, Jayaraman said.

“There’s no way around raising wages at this moment. People are just saying, ‘I cannot afford to do this anymore,’” she said outside the Capitol. “If you see every other price go up and the wages have not, you’re going to end up with massive staffing crises in every low-wage sector.”

The national campaign’s demand surpasses a statewide ballot measure that Californians will vote on in November — an $18-per-hour proposal that just a few years ago was seen as radical and is now dwarfed by the latest industry mandates.

California has among the highest minimum wages in the country — and it automatically increases with inflation — and far surpasses the $7.25 federal minimum wage. But it’s also home to some of the most expensive cities in the world. The minimum wage pencils out to about $33,000 a year, and the average cost of living in California is about $53,082 annually, according to recent federal data.

While labor unions saw record success in passing pro-worker policies last year following mass strikes, the Legislature has not approved a statewide minimum wage increase for all workers since 2016, when it was $10 an hour. And there is no public push from Gov. Gavin Newsom or concerted effort by state Democrats to do so.

Assemblymember Liz Ortega, a Democrat who represents Hayward, is the chair of the Assembly Committee on Labor and Employment. She said, “I wish it was that easy” when asked if the Legislature plans to outright mandate a higher minimum wage for all any time soon.

Instead, Democrats have been “chipping away at it,” said Ortega, a longtime labor leader. The demands from excluded workers are expected, she said, and can be good for the cause.

“I think it’s a great conversation to be having. That means we’re making progress,” she said. “I support increasing wages, period. I don’t have a number in mind.”

Wealthy Los Angeles investor and anti-poverty advocate Joe Sanberg is behind the upcoming $18-per-hour minimum wage ballot measure, and he is trying to convince voters that it’s a meaningful increase even as other categorical mandates have surpassed it.

Political strategy among Sacramento insiders is getting in the way, he said, as unions are divided on the best approach and whether $18 is enough to fight for right now.

Just last week, San Diego unions representing hotel, janitorial and convention workers called for $25 an hour. In another move reflective of how the movement has changed, the Fight for $15 campaign — nearly a decade ago considered revolutionary — changed its name last week to Fight for a Union.

But Sanberg is marching on, noting that millions of Californians will see a boost in income if it passes. And higher wage efforts can still follow, he said.

“Should we do more than $18? Yeah, of course,” Sanberg said. “This idea to pull it back in order to go for something bigger in the future … that point of view is kind of making chess pieces out of working people’s lives.”

While some research shows that higher wages are good for the economy and won’t harm even small businesses, some fast-food restaurants have moved to lay off workers and hike prices in the wake of wage mandates. Newsom and lawmakers are also figuring out how to cope with costs tied to the healthcare wage increase, which state officials have estimated could cost $4 billion in its first year of implementation.

Republicans and business groups such as the California Chamber of Commerce have long opposed minimum wage hikes, arguing that business owners should be in charge of their own financial decisions and that the state is already doing more than most for workers.

“We can’t expect the business community to continue to absorb this time and time again,” said Assemblymember Heath Flora (R-Ripon), who co-chairs the labor committee.

Flora said he’s heard from constituents feeling “resentment” because of the latest wage hikes and that they were excluded because they “don’t have a powerful labor group or lobbyist” behind them.

The minimum wage in Los Angeles is set to increase by 50 cents in July to $17.28 an hour.

Tricia La Belle, who owns bars and restaurants in Los Angeles, recently listed two businesses for sale as she struggles to cope with costs. She says that any new wage hikes will tank small-business owners like her.

“I can’t do it anymore. We’re in the red,” said La Belle, who is also the president of the Greater Los Angeles Hospitality Assn. “There are no restaurants that can survive this. Between insurance, utilities, rent and labor costs, we’re going to see restaurants go down like dominoes this year.”

A bill making its way through the Legislature by Assemblymember Ash Kalra (D-San José) would require California to conduct a study on raising the minimum wage, calling the current rate “wholly inadequate.”

The so-called study bill also asks the state to reconsider raising wages of incarcerated workers, some who make $2 an hour and work as firefighters.

Kalra said it’s been “challenging” and a “major effort” to try to get all impacted parties on the same page about where to go next regarding the minimum wage. But he said it’s time.

“Sometimes it’s easier when you focus in on a particular industry; however, in order to create some sense of equity, I think it’s good to create one higher minimum wage that makes sense,” Kalra said.

Some California cities have moved ahead on their own: Officials in West Hollywood raised the minimum wage there to $19.08, while employers in Mountain View, San Francisco and Berkeley are required to pay more than $18 an hour.

The nonpartisan Legislative Analyst’s Office recommended in a report last month that the California Legislature consider mandating regional minimum wages instead of leaving it up to local governments, citing the vastly different costs of living across the state.

Housing in California’s major metro areas is “unaffordable even for workers with wages well above the minimum wage,” the report said.

“In the most basic sense, the statewide minimum wage is much higher than a ‘poverty wage.’ At the same time, the state’s high housing costs make it extremely difficult for many low-wage workers to make ends meet,” the report said.

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