Santa Monica Puts Minimum Wage Hike on Hold
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Santa Monica Puts Minimum Wage Hike on Hold

After hours of public testimony and debate that went past midnight on Tuesday, the Santa Monica City Council decided to hold off on creating a citywide minimum wage until at least December.

The council appeared in broad agreement that the city should adopt a wage floor of $15 an hour by 2020, which would reflect the one approved by the L.A. City Council earlier this year. The council also was unanimous in supporting an exemption for unionized employers, which would create an incentive for non-union firms to allow collective bargaining.

The L.A. City Council rejected such an exemption, which many business groups have labeled as hypocritical. But true to the city's reputation, the Santa Monica council is taking a more pro-labor stance.

"We're rock-solid on that issue," said Mayor Kevin McKeown.

The council decided, however, to take more time to consult with the community on other aspects of the minimum-wage policy.

During the debate, the Santa Monica council seemed to side with labor on several issues on which labor was defeated during the fight over the L.A. minimum wage. 

For one, the Santa Monica council is considering requiring employers to provide up to 12 days of paid sick leave per year. The L.A. ordinance does not provide any paid time off, though the council is expected to revisit the issue in the next several months.

Santa Monica also seems inclined to the pro-labor viewpoint on the issue of service charges in restaurants. This was a flashpoint during the L.A. debate, when restaurants failed to get a sought-after exception for tipped workers. Many restaurant owners suggested that they would switch from tips to mandatory service charges, which they could then redistribute to low-paid kitchen employees. Labor leaders urged the council to close the service charge "loophole" by requiring that mandatory charges be treated the same as tips.

That effort fell short in L.A., but it appears to be faring better in Santa Monica. The draft ordinance included language restricting the use of service charges, but some Santa Monica restaurants are organizing to retain more flexibility.

"We agree everybody should be making more money," said Hunter G. Hall, founder of the Santa Monica Neighborhood Restaurant Coalition. "But we're not on board with local government micromanaging the complex way we deal with employees."

Santa Monica also is seeking to copy L.A.'s hotel living-wage ordinance, which mandates a minimum wage of $15.37 per hour at non-union hotels of 150 beds or more. Santa Monica has a handful of hotels with living-wage agreements, but the majority of the city's hotels are non-union.

During the debate, the council members solicited advice from a lawyer for Unite HERE Local 11, which represents hotel and restaurant workers. At one point in the hallway, McKeown asked the lawyer for help in defending the labor position on service charges.

In contrast to the process in L.A., the Santa Monica debate was notably transparent. In L.A., many of the labor-backed proposals were never discussed openly before they were slipped into motions by labor-friendly council members at the last minute. Santa Monica's officials have been candid about their pro-labor views since they began discussing the issue in June.

McKeown did seem eager, though, to get the process wrapped up by Thanksgiving, which he said would provide working families with good news for the holidays. City manager Rick Cole told him that would be impossible, given the schedule of community meetings that will be required, and that the issue would have to wait until December.

"I don't want an endless series of public workshops," McKeown said. "I'd like to send a message that we're serious."

McKeown relented only when other council members indicated they wanted to take it slow. As it happens, his one-year term as rotating mayor will expire in December and a new mayor will take over. When it became clear the ordinance would not pass before then, McKeown pronounced himself "disappointed."

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