Sacramento to experience multiple wages of grief

City advances minimum-wage deal without the support of labor or business interests

It was the minimum-wage deal very few wanted, foisted upon the city of Sacramento like a “broken-winged bird that cannot fly.”

That's how Councilman Steve Hansen put it while quoting poet Langston Hughes. He was one of three Sacramento City Council members to vote against a last-minute proposal that muscled through last Tuesday, despite unified opposition from business and labor interests and a raucous public discourse that put two activists in handcuffs.

Alliance of Californians for Community Empowerment members Christina Arechiga and Wanda Cleveland were arrested as other activists booed and heckled Mayor Kevin Johnson for ending public comment on the revised proposal, which was put forth by Councilman Jay Schenirer as a “compromise” to a controversial, earlier version.

The proposal that was adopted October 27 will increase the city's hourly minimum wage to $12.50 by 2020. Unlike the previous version that was recommended by a city task force and then roundly disavowed, this deal doesn't allow employers to exempt tipped workers or those who are minors or developmentally disabled. The business community got something too, in the form of a one-year implementation delay for businesses with less than 100 employees and an employer health-care credit.

But the changes weren't enough to appease labor activists who wanted a faster path to $15 an hour, or business interests who wanted no raise at all.

That put council members in a political pickle, with the outgoing Johnson wanting to notch another policy victory before leaving office and Councilwoman Angelique Ashby, a mayoral candidate, using the moment to separate herself from the man with the gavel.

“I don't like any community meeting that ends with people being arrested. That just sounds completely unreasonable,” she said. “It was against my instinct to sit up here and watch that happen.”

Ashby went on to criticize the proposal, garnering applause. “If the people who would benefit from a raise are saying ‘we don't want this raise, it's not good for us' and the people who would be responsible for providing that raise are saying ‘we can't do this, it's detrimental to our business,' I'm just a little unclear on who we’re doing this for and what the benefit is.”

Statewide, the minimum wage is set to increase from $9 an hour to $10 an hour in January. The first citywide increase wouldn't happen until 2017, when the hourly rate increases by 50 cents.

In voting for the measure, Councilman Jeff Harris said it would allow the city to carefully study the local economic impacts of raising the wage, for good or ill, and respond in kind. “Folks, this is not written in stone,” he said.

The proposal's passage was met with a loud chorus of boos from the audience. After the vote, business groups like the Sacramento Metropolitan Chamber and Region Business sought to put a positive spin on a deal they didn't support. “While City Council's approval is not a win for the business community, it secures a more responsible increase than what we've seen in other California cities,” the Metro Chamber said in a statement.

Tamie Dramer of Organize Sacramento called the dropped worker exemptions “a big win for us,” but criticized other aspects of the plan. She said the implementation delay would allow 98 percent of city businesses to avoid paying $12.50 an hour until 2021.

Harris indicated he hoped state lawmakers would see Sacramento and other wage-hiking cities as a reason to replace patchwork approaches with a statewide plan. Meanwhile, labor and business groups are preparing dueling ballot proposals that would ask voters to realize or avoid an hourly $15 rate by 2020 respectively.