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New Battle Over City’s Minimum Wage

Restaurant owners want to pause increase, workers say 'pay up'

Published on Wednesday, May 20, 2020 | 2:02 pm
Low wage workers rally to protect the July 1 minimum wage increase in front of the Pasadena City Hall on Wednesday, May 20, 2020. (Photo by James Carbone)

The Coronavirus pandemic has led to new battle lines over the city’s minimum wage ordinance.

The wage is scheduled to increase to $15 in July, but struggling restaurant owners want the City Council to either delay the increase or move to the slower state schedule, which won’t reach $15 for another two years.

“What it will do is if it went through, it would just force businesses to either lay off more people or raise the prices and the public doesn’t have money right now because they’re not working,” Marc Cantor, owner of Cantor’s Deli. “So it’s really bad for everybody. I don’t see how it could be good for anybody at this time with this pandemic going on.”

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Meanwhile, low-income wage earners want their money now, and say they shouldn’t be forced to bear the brunt of the pandemic.

“This is the most appropriate time to get a raise,” said local activist Pablo Alvarado. “What you need to do during a pandemic is protect the most vulnerable and the most vulnerable are the low-wage workers. That’s a fact. There are many ways that the local authorities can assist businesses. There are many ways they can forgive taxes, so why does the burden have to fall on the shoulders of the workers?”

Activists rallied in front of Pasadena City Hall on Wednesday and called on the City Council to keep the city’s minimum wage ordinance on schedule and increase the minimum wage to $15 on July 1.

They claim the Economic Development and Technology Committee is scheduled to discuss the matter in a special meeting on Thursday.

City Council members acknowledge the topic has come up.

“It’s not on the agenda,” said Councilman Andy Wilson. “But you know let’s be clear, the business owners are tossing out any idea possible that will give them some opportunity to have a decent chance at bringing their businesses back online and surviving. So you know clearly the topic of the minimum wage has been raised but it has not been agendized at this point.”

Restaurant owners have had at least two Zoom meetings with local officials and at least one council member.

“I think every retailer is a little petrified right now because this came so abruptly,” said Greg Smith, who owns several restaurants in Pasadena. “And now we are in unprecedented, uncharted times. I think we’re supposed to get some guidelines from the city you know about what needs to take place inside our facilities, and we’re waiting anxiously to get advice on those.”

The increased minimum wage was opposed by members of the Pasadena Chamber of Commerce and restaurant owners who said increasing the wage would force them to reduce their workforce and cut hours of operation.

Pasadena’s ordinance included a review, which allowed the city to pause and look at the impacts of the minimum wage in 2019 before agreeing to continue moving forward.

Restaurant owners pleaded with the council en masse to use the pause to switch to the state’s slower schedule.

The city passed its ordinance in February 2016, two months before then-Gov. Jerry Brown signed Senate Bill 3, which increases the state-mandated minimum wage to $15 in 2022.

The council ultimately stayed on track with its own ordinance.

However, that was before the Coronavirus forced local officials to close just about every business, leaving restaurant owners and low wage workers wondering how they were going to make money going forward.

“No one at the city council meeting in 2019 when we all went there to review the Pasadena minimum wage ordinance for a possible pause would have ever predicted what the world is contending with today,” said former restaurateur Robin Salzer. “Businesses are closed — some permanent — and employees aren’t working.”

Salzer said he believes 30 percent of restaurants and retail businesses may never reopen.

“It would seem that raising the minimum wage on July 1 while business is still shut down or working at a possible 25 to 50 percent capacity of normal times could force more of these businesses to never reopen or to reopen with a severely reduced work force and staff. I would suggest that the City Council consider a 12 month pause on raising the minimum wage to allow the businesses to rebuild themselves and to reassure their customers that they are safe, clean, and happy to welcome them back.”

Marta Salazar, who lives in Pasadena and works in a restaurant said she is expecting the minimum wage to increase to $15 on July 1.

“That is what the politicians told us,” Salazar said. “In times of pandemic and economic depression, we need more money in our pockets, not less. It is unfair and immoral that workers have to bear the burden all the time.”

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