San Francisco Leads Country with New Minimum Wage Proposals

Willie Williams earns $6.80 an hour working as a security guard for the city of San Francisco. Like many other low-wage workers, Williams can't afford to rent an apartment in the city he works in, or even in less expensive suburbs. So Williams and his wife and two children have been living in homeless shelters since January. "Moving from shelter to shelter has been pretty scary," he says. "I always hoped and prayed it would get better."

Fortunately, Williams' prayers may soon come true. He and thousands of other low-wage San Francisco workers will soon see their pay rise to a "living wage" -- $9 an hour, plus health benefits. The recently announced Minimum Compensation Ordinance, endorsed by a broad coalition of politicians, activists and business owners, will put San Francisco at the forefront of the living wage fight. The law will guarantee that about 21,500 workers -- employees of businesses that have substantial city contractors, home-care industry workers and workers at San Francisco International Airport -- must be paid at least $9 an hour in their first year, $10 an hour the next year, and then get a 2.5 percent annual increase every additional year. When the law passes (expected in August) workers will also receive 12 paid vacation and sick leave days a year and 10 uncompensated days for family emergencies. A related health care ordinance, expected to pass in September, will provide medical insurance to workers who do not have it.

"The new living wage laws will be a tremendous achievement," says Ken Jacobs, co-director of the San Francisco Living Wage Coalition, a partnership of unions, community organizations and religious leaders fighting for economic justice. The members of the Coalition are especially pleased because, although similar living wage ordinances have been enacted in numerous cities, the San Francisco law will be the most far reaching. Its inclusion of a 2.5 percent annual pay raise, its health plan and its coverage of such a vast number of people puts San Francisco above the city of San Jose, which currently has the strongest living wage laws in the country. San Francisco's laws will also rival similar ordinances in Portland, Boston, Detroit, Chicago and New York. In fact, ever-stronger living wage laws are taking hold in cities around the country. June Gibson, an analyst for the city of Los Angeles, says the LA City Council recently adopted a motion to study increasing the minimum wage for city contractors to $10 per hour.

Of course, the San Francisco ordinances have not come without a fight. Originally, the Living Wage Coalition had prepared an even stronger proposal as a citywide initiative for the November ballot. The coalition's proposal would have called for wages at $10 an hour the first year and $11 the second for around 30,000 workers. The 20,000 signatures needed to get the proposal on the ballot were gathered in only 16 days.

The business community responded predictably, claiming such a strong law would hurt small business owners. At that point, Mayor Willie Brown stepped in to negotiate a deal between the activists and the business community. After three weeks of intense negotiations, the Mayor and all 11 members of the Board of Supervisors reached a settlement and agreed to endorse the current legislation.

Such a settlement was exactly what the living wage activists were counting on. "Our original ballot initiative," said Ken Jacobs, "was designed to put maximum pressure on all parties to come to a compromise." And in fact, the current legislation is more than some activists had expected. "We got almost everything we could have at the ballot," says Hunter Cutting, a media consultant for the Living Wage Coalition.

Representatives of the business community were equally satisfied. Business negotiator Mark Mosher told the San Francisco Chronicle last week, "Like any fair deal, both sides are mildly unhappy with it, which probably means it is pretty good public policy. But one thing for sure, a living-wage bill would not have gone through the Board of Supervisors if the mayor hadn't gotten the parties together and brokered a compromise."

One of the major victories for the activists was the health care component of the current legislation. The Health Care Accountability Ordinance, actually a different piece of legislation from the Minimum Compensation Ordinance, applies to even more workers -- all city contracts and leases, including the Fisherman's Wharf restaurants that refused to participate in the wage ordinance. Under the plan, employers will pay $1.25 an hour per worker to their choice of three different health plan options, which combined will cover all eligible workers.

Ken Jacobs of the Living Wage Coalition thinks the health care legislation sends a particularly strong message. "What makes the Health Care Accountability Ordinance groundbreaking is both its breadth of reach and that it is designed to actually provide workers health insurance." Other similar plans, Jacobs explained, don't give employers options that they can afford, and so workers don't end up actually getting insurance. San Francisco's three-tiered plan will allow "the number of people covered to be significantly greater than in any other municipality."

Mayor Brown told the San Francisco Chronicle last week that the city's strong economy permitting, he would continue to try to raise low income wages in the future. He also told the Chronicle he did not know how much the current proposals would cost San Francisco.

Regardless of the ordinances' price tags, the city will certainly recuperate a great deal of money by saving on social welfare programs. For Willie Williams, the combined health care and the living wage ordinances will mean the difference between being a tax liability to being a taxpayer. When his wages increases, and now that his wife has also landed a steady job, Williams figures that he'll be able to move his family out of homeless shelters and into a place of their own. "I feel good about the ordinance," says Williams. "It's going to help a lot of low-income employees."

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