Should Sacramento raise the minimum wage?

A growing movement aims to increase the minimum wage to $15 an hour. Many cities are getting on board. Will the River City?

Aleyna Lopez can barely afford lunch at McDonald’s, or new clothes besides her uniform, on $9 an hour. Not to mention rent, school, groceries and so on. She and others are pushing for a $15 minimum wage in California.

Aleyna Lopez can barely afford lunch at McDonald’s, or new clothes besides her uniform, on $9 an hour. Not to mention rent, school, groceries and so on. She and others are pushing for a $15 minimum wage in California.

Fast-food workers in Sacramento and more than 150 other cities nationwide recently went on strike. The first protests here kicked off early morning on September 4, at a McDonald’s on the corner of Fruitridge and Power Inn roads. There, roughly a hundred people circled the building, chanting, “We believe that we will win,” and “Fifteen dollars and a union,” the latter a call for a $15-an-hour living wage.

Later that day, the protests grew and demonstrators spread throughout the city. Taking the path of least resistance, a number of restaurants shut their doors, putting up signs telling their customers that they were closed “for maintenance.”

At one point, at the main protest site, the McDonald’s and Taco Bell franchises near Broadway and 24th Street, Mayor Kevin Johnson showed up, taking the microphone to speak out in support of the workers and their pay demands.

There, several demonstrators also were arrested while sitting in a circle outside a McDonald’s. They were cited for refusal to disperse. Among them was 18-year-old Aleyna Lopez, a petite teen with fluffy hair and plastic-framed glasses. She sat with several of her colleagues in the middle of a street, blocking the McDonald’s entrance.

She had never been involved in a protest before, but over the previous months had grown increasingly disillusioned with the low pay and poor working conditions at her job.

“It was needed for people to take that extra step,” Lopez says of the protest. “It was really symbolic.”

She is used to hard times. Since May, when she graduated from Valley High School in the Elk Grove Unified School District, she has worked two jobs: at McDonald’s and as a babysitter. For years, her mother, who works at Wal-Mart, has bounced from one unstable living arrangement to the next—staying with friends, relatives, never quite having enough for her own apartment. Her father, with whom she is currently staying, works as a janitor. He, too, struggles to make ends meet.

“I’m trying to save up when I can,” says Lopez, who took a month of psychology classes at Cosumnes River College after high school, but then had to drop her studies to try to bring in a bit more cash. “But my granddad’s been having a lot of medical problems. We’ve been taking him in and out of the hospital. So, I’ve been helping pay.”

Welcome to low-wage Sacramento.

Life on minimum

Despite the fact that politicians around the country are now talking about the minimum wage and poverty—and that Mayor Johnson has urged passage of the $10.10 federal minimum championed by President Barack Obama—thousands of Sacramentans still earn too little to make ends meet. Many California cities are now going it alone, raising their local minimum wages to levels far higher than that proposed by Obama.

But Sacramento itself has not followed suit. For workers such as Lopez, that means the daily grind continues unabated.

A number of local activists, union organizers and religious leaders have set their sights on a minimum-wage increase. And they are using the stories of workers such as Lopez to build public support.

Lopez works for $9 an hour for a local McDonald’s. Her shoes are falling apart. The last clothes she bought were the trousers and shirts that make up her fast-food uniform. On a fairly regular basis, she misses meals. McDonald’s gives half off to employees, but only, she says, if they spend at least $4 on a meal. Since she can’t often rustle up that amount, during the day she makes do with a dollar burger.

“I usually just go to sleep so I don’t have to be hungry,” she says.

Dominga Ocampo-Romero, a 42-year-old mother of three who works for a Jack-in-the-Box in south Sacramento, says every penny has to be counted. A month ago, she jammed her hand in a bathroom door while cleaning the facilities at work, mangling several fingers. Now, she juggles several thousand dollars in medical bills with rent (she, her husband, and their three children live in a small, two bedroom apartment), car insurance and utilities payments.

She calculates the cost of each meal, down to the last cent. Since her accident, she has been on sick leave, putting a huge strain on her family’s finances: The entire family is now reliant only on her husband’s minimum-wage income.

“I got yesterday 10 pounds of rice, $10.49, and beans. Three pounds is $5. And chicken is $3.49 for a package,” she says of her shopping. She will, she explains, try to make the meat last across at least two meals.

Ocampo-Romero worries that her accident has ruined whatever precarious financial calculus she had established. “Yesterday I cry, cry, cry,” she says, her hair pulled back in a scrunchy, her busted fingers awkwardly sticking out from her hand. “I have no money, and I need to help my mom,” who also has high medical bills, she says. “I go to my room; it’s too much, too much stress.”

She recently joined the strikers, calling for a living wage to replace the pittance that she currently earns. She has worked since she was 16—in garment factories in Tijuana; in fast food outlets in California—and she is tired of the daily struggle to stay afloat.

“No vacation, no nothing,” she says, in fractured English. “Fifteen dollars an hour is not too much of a stretch—for bills, for food. It’s better. Medication too. Right now, I think all the time, ’Oh my God, no money.’”

A new movement

Working 40 hours a week, a minimum-wage worker in California—where the statewide minimum stands at $9 per hour—earns only $360.

South Sacramento activist David Mazariegos is working for an initiative on Sacramento ballots in 2016 to raise the minimum wage.

If they are trying to support a family of four, the federal poverty level is estimated at roughly $23,000. A minimum-wage family head earns thousands of dollars below the poverty line.

And many minimum-wage workers, especially in the fast-food industry, end up working far less than 40 hours each week, their companies deliberately keeping them under 32 hours so as not to have to provide them health benefits.

Raise their pay to $15 per hour, as supporters of the living-wage movement argue, and you pull millions of Californians out of poverty.

Do so at your peril, opponents counter, since a higher minimum wage could force many companies—especially mom-and-pop businesses—to close down, or at least to pare back their workforce. It is a debate that has increasingly come to occupy political center-stage over the past couple of years.

Last year, with national attention focused on growing wage inequalities, Sacramento hosted a statewide policy debate that resulted in legislators increasing the minimum, in a series of incremental steps. By 2016, it will be up to $10 per hour.

For labor reformers, this represented a good start. But not a conclusion; it was better than nothing, but still left too many workers and their families vulnerable to poverty.

It still left people like Lopez running out of cash a week into their biweekly pay check. It still left shredded their dreams of upward mobility—of being able to attend college, of being able to do more than work a dead-end job year-in, year-out.

In the wake of the passage of California’s minimum-wage bill, many city reformers began pushing their own local minimum-wage ordinances, hoping to do the state one better.

Here in Sacramento, Bill Camp, executive director of the Sacramento Labor Council, started doing the rounds. Camp, who has been involved in labor organizing for decades, initiated a string of meetings with local ministers and community organizers, trying to generate momentum to push for a living wage.

The living wage movement, he argued, “in the most basic way is informing the public you’ve got to raise the minimum wage to 15 bucks. It’s not intellectuals saying it, it’s ordinary workers. If you want people to be engaged, you’ve got to give them a vision that’s inspirational.”

Camp, who is slated to retire at year’s end, is using his remaining time at the council to further the campaign for a local minimum wage hike, meeting with the SEIU and the other unions that work with low-wage workers to secure their support.

“It’s our goal to put the $15 minimum wage on the ballot in Sacramento in November 2016,” he said. “We’ll do it by initiative, because we don’t trust the city council.”

Higher wages everywhere …

With the federal government stalemated over major economic reforms, much of the energy for a minimum-wage hike has devolved down to cities and states. California led the way last year with its $10 minimum. San Francisco state Senator Mark Leno tried to bump it to $13, but his bill failed.

The defeat was galling to Leno, both because California has a higher-than-average cost of living—estimates are that it’s at least 30 percent more expensive to live in the Golden State than it is to live in states such as Mississippi—and also because even forgetting the cost of living issue it is simply impossible for a family of four anywhere in America to experience economic security on one minimum-wage income.

“My intent was to end the legality of paying poverty wages. I’ve never heard a sound argument as to why it should be legal to work full-time and be in poverty,” says Leno. “We could raise millions of Californians out of poverty with a $13 minimum wage.”

Reformers in a growing number of California cities have began going it alone, some taking as their inspiration the fact that, this past spring, Seattle passed a citywide $15 minimum wage. It was backed by politicians, the mayor, and a surprising number of local businesses.

San Jose, Santa Monica and other cities had enacted higher baseline wages over the past few years as well. In San Francisco, an across-the-board minimum of $15 was voted on on Tuesday. And in Sonoma, Sebastopol and Petaluma, all city workers and contractors must earn at least $13.31 per hour, plus benefits, or $15 hourly without benefits. Activists in the far north in Eureka are pushing for a $12 citywide minimum. And in nearby Davis, local campaigners have been pushing for a $15 minimum.

Voters in Oakland, which currently has a living-wage ordinance covering all workers in its sprawling port, on Election Day also voted on a big hike in their minimum wage to $12.25. And in San Diego, historically considered one of the more conservative cities in the state, an $11.50 minimum, to be implemented by 2017, was recently approved.

In the state’s biggest metropolis, Los Angelenos voted on two measures this past Tuesday that, if passed, would extend living-wage protections to city workers and employees of companies contracting with the city, as well as to all workers within the boundaries of the LAX airport.

And yet, absent from the list of California cities jumping aboard the living wage train this electoral season are the large Central Valley towns of Sacramento and Fresno.

“The most challenging part of the state to do living wage or minimum wage? Hands down it’s the Central Valley,” said Marty Bennett, co-chair of North Bay Jobs with Justice. “Labor is very weak” in these counties, he explained.

As a result, more than one in four workers in Sacramento earns less per hour than the $13 that Leno had proposed as a new statewide baseline.

While the median hourly wage in the state capital is $19.82, the 25th percentile wage is only $12.30. For cashiers, the average wage is only a few cents over the $10 mark. Disproportionately, the low-wage jobs are concentrated in retail, food service and hotels. Those are the workers who would have seen their wages rise had Leno’s measure passed.

Now, their best hope for a short-term pay raise lies with local activists and their ability to generate enthusiasm for a city initiative in 2016. “Unemployment is high, wages are low,” the California Budget Project’s Luke Reidenbach says of Sacramento. “This is a place that could really benefit from an increase.”

“That’s the dream,” says 29-year-old community organizer David Mazariegos, who spends several hours each day discussing issues such as low wages with community residents in south Sacramento and Oak Park. “That we get a movement strong enough, robust enough, that we can move that type of initiative here in Sacramento.”

… except Sacramento

Nine years ago, Sacramento did actually pass a very limited living-wage ordinance, pushed largely by Camp’s Central Labor Council, covering city contractors. But the measure only affected employees working for contractors doing more than $100,000 of business with the city. Since then, efforts to expand baseline wage protections across the board have largely floundered.

And that sits wrong with local labor leaders, faith-based community organizers, and service sector activists. “I know people that work in fast food and have a child at home,” says Minister Valdez Anderson, of St. Stephen AME Zion in Del Paso Heights. Anderson works with many of the city’s low-income families. “They can’t make ends meet, make the rent, keep the lights on. Right now, we have to combat corporations that don’t want to pay their employees what they should be paid to make a living wage.”

Minimum-wage workers, says Anderson, “are the same people that don’t get any sick leave, paternity leave—none of these types of things. If they take a day off, they lose a day of pay.”

They are also the workers who end up utilizing state and federal programs to bridge the financial gaps. Statewide, through the provision of medical assistance and other aid, California ends up subsidizing corporations that underpay their workers, to the tune of hundreds of millions of dollars annually.

The ministers and activists of ACT hope to turn the scandal of minimum-wage workers having to fall back on public assistance into a water-cooler conversation topic. They know they have missed the boat for 2014, but they’re hoping that, by 2016, Sacramento will have caught up with the other big cities in the state.

By then, they argue, public support will have grown to the point where ACT could either push for a ballot initiative to raise the minimum wage, or lobby a majority on the city council to vote for an increase.

For that to happen, though, the council and mayor will have to feel the heat.

Johnson, despite supporting a pay hike for the fast-food strikers, opposes a city ordinance or initiative to create a higher citywide minimum wage.

Last year, he was called to task for this by PBS and NPR commentator Tavis Smiley, during an “Indivisible Forum” on African-American community empowerment, held at the Citizen Hotel. Keen to bring high profile projects, such as the Kings arena, to Sacramento, Johnson has been loath to lend his support to wage-structure changes that might scare off some large investors.

More generally, the mayor has largely distanced himself from the more assertive trade unions, preferring instead to put his energies into campaigning for the higher federal wage that Obama has pushed for. (Johnson’s office did not return calls asking for comment for this article.)

Many council members also oppose focusing attention on the high minimum wage. And while ACT believes that Councilman Jay Schenirer is sympathetic to their cause, and would likely vote to support an increased local minimum if presented with the opportunity, he too declined to discuss the issue with SN&R.

Local politicians’ recalcitrance on this issue isn’t surprising, given the level of Chamber of Commerce opposition to any local increase. Other cities have seen more chamber cooperation, but Sacramento in recent years hasn’t seen either Chamber flexibility or union strength, so the idea of increasing the local minimum wage has languished.

“We would not be in favor of it,” says Dennis Rogers, senior vice president for public policy and economic development at the Sacramento Metro Chamber of Commerce. He argues that many minimum-wage workers are either teenagers or young adults simply looking for job experience, or are second earners in middle-class households. Increase the minimum wage, he says, and you simply discourage employers from hiring these individuals.

Rogers is right about a disproportionate number of minimum-wage jobs being filled by teenagers—but only up to a point. In recent years, an increasing number of older workers, including those supporting families, have had to take jobs in sectors of the economy that used to be the preserve of young people. And that trend is only likely to escalate as more traditional blue-collar jobs continue to disappear.

The fact that Sacramento’s cost-of-living index is much less than many other big cities in California, though still higher than national average, only adds grist to Rogers’ mill. “The statistics,” Rogers declares, “bear out the fact that an increase in the minimum wage is not something we need.”

A conversation, at the minimum

Despite cautious politics and local-business opposition, the national “Fight for Fifteen” movement might just change Sacramento. After all, especially since 2008, new jobs that have been replacing decent-paying manufacturing gigs have been low-end service-sector positions and, disproportionately, workers in industries such as fast food, hotels, and big-box department stores. These jobs earn at or near the legal minimum wage.

“All over the world,” says Camp, “we’re being crushed by the 1 percent. The obscene separation of income and wealth. Where we raise the minimum wage, working-class people have a better life, and it drives economic growth.” The unions, Camp argues, need to “educate, agitate, and organize” around the issue.

They need, the organizers believe, to highlight stories like Lopez: How she put an app on her phone so that she could easily sell her old clothes to raise a few dollars to help her parents pay their bills. Five dollars here, $5 there—every little bit helped.

“Since I can remember, we haven’t had a house to ourselves,” Lopez explained. She hopes if she just saves that little bit extra, one day she and her mom could actually move into an apartment and call it their home.

In recent months, fast-food workers and others frame this as an issue of dignity. The minimum-wage movement is now one with deeply moral overtones. “The Bible says when a man works, at the end of the day pay the man his wages. Plain and simple,” says Anderson.

Anderson’s friend and fellow ACT organizer Danielle Williams says this living-wage message resonates. “Economic dignity has come up over and over and over with congregations in our community.

“I think Sacramento is ready to have that conversation.”