L.A. is considering one of the highest minimum wages — $15.37 for some


The famous Hollywood sign overlooking the Hollywood Hills in Los Angeles. (Bret Hartman/For The Washington Post)

President Obama can call on Congress to raise the federal minimum wage to $10.10 all he wants, but unless House Republican leaders can calm their members, it, along with every other policy priority, appears to be dead in the water.

But all hope for proponents of raising the minimum wage isn’t lost. As of Monday, more than half the nation — 28 states — were considering raising state minimum wages. In California, home to about an eighth of the U.S. population, the $8 minimum wage will increase by a dollar on July 1, and again, to $10, at the start of 2016. And in Los Angeles — most populous city in the most populous state — the city council this week began exploring a $15.37 minimum wage for some workers, just above the nationally followed $15 minimum wage passed in November for workers at Seattle’s airport.

City Council members Nury Martinez, Curren D. Price Jr. and Mike Bonin introduced a proposal on Tuesday that would make the minimum hourly wage for all employees at large hotels in L.A. $15.37, as was done for airport employees a few years ago. The council will first have to study the potential economic impact such an increase would have, but, if approved, it would be among the highest minimum wages in the nation. We had a chance to talk to Bonin this week about the measure, who it affects, and why they proposed it. Here’s a condensed, slightly edited version of that conversation:

City Councilmembers Mike Bonin, left, Nury Martinez and Curren D. Price Jr., right, introduced the proposal to raise the minimum wage for hotel workers in Los Angeles to $15.37. (David Graham-Caso, Office of Councilmember Mike Bonin) City Councilmembers Mike Bonin, left, Nury Martinez and Curren D. Price Jr., right. (David Graham-Caso, Office of Councilmember Mike Bonin)

What’s your constituency like?

There are 15 members of the Los Angeles City Council; we each have about 270,000 constituents. I represent the west side of the city which is the coastal communities — they tend to be more affluent, and my district also includes Los Angeles International Airport, the southern California headquarters of Google, YouTube and some of the Silicon Beach area of Los Angeles.

Why did you guys decide to bring up this minimum wage proposal now?

Well, the one thing I should say right away is I’m a co-sponsor of this with two other council members — Nury Martinez and Curren D. Price Jr. — both of whom represent vastly different parts of the city than I do. Nury represents a largely Latino district in the San Fernando Valley, and Curren represents a Latino and African-American district in south L.A., one of the poorer parts of the city. So we really represent, between the three of us, the face of the diversity of Los Angeles.

All three of us just recently took office over the past few months, and we decided to do this because of the yawning gap between incomes here in Los Angeles. We have a barbell economy with the large and growing upper-income segment and the large and growing pocket of people who live and work below the poverty line. That’s bad for us as a society, it’s bad for us as a city, but it’s also bad for us as an economy. Our middle class has been disappearing, and, in order to grow our economy here, we need to grow our middle class, and we need to do it in two different ways. One is by attracting a lot of good middle-class jobs, which we’re getting from Google and YouTube and all the tech start-ups that are coming here. But also by raising folks out of the ranks of the working poor and into the middle class giving them more disposable income, more discretionary income.

The data we’re seeing is pretty scary. In the hospitality industry here in Los Angeles, 43 percent of those who work in that industry are making incomes below the federal poverty line. And the cost of living in Los Angeles is considerably higher than in other places, so when you’re below the federal poverty line in Los Angeles, you’re way below what it is to make a living wage.

Did you guys consider proposing something broader?

The consensus feeling among the elected officials in Los Angeles was to start small and go bigger. I personally haven’t been shy about saying I’d like to see a citywide minimum wage increase, and that’s the direction I’d eventually like to go.

How did you come to $15.37?

There are a couple different living wages that have been historically established throughout Los Angeles. The most recent is for service employees at Los Angeles International Airport, that’s $15.37. So we pegged it to that most recent figure. It’s also the figure that voters approved in the city of Long Beach, which is one of the other biggest cities in California, very close to us. It has a particular resonance for me because, as I often note, when Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., led the March on Washington in 1968 he called for a minimum wage of $2 an hour. Adjusted to inflation, that’s $15 and some cents, so we’re in the ballpark of just adjusting for inflation, really.

Where does the proposal stand?

We’re actually required by law and sort of dictated by logic to do a study of the impacts first. Back in 2007, the city passed a living wage for hotels near Los Angeles International Airport and part of that ordinance said that if you were going to expand the wage further to other hotels or to a different industry you need to do an economic impact study first. We will do that economic impact study, and we’re going to start discussing it in committee next Tuesday. Once that’s complete, assuming the findings come back with the same information we’ve been getting about the potential for the existing harm to the current folks who are working below the poverty line and the potential benefits to those people and to the Los Angeles economy as a whole from raising the wage, we will vote on the ordinance in council.

Have you heard from any other members who have voiced support for the measure yet?

Yeah, when we put the motion in, we had three co-sponsors, and we had two seconds on it, so that’s a full third of the body. We know that we also have some other supporters, so I feel good about the level of support we have at the council. We also had, as we kicked this off, support from not just hotel workers, which is obvious, but small business owners who are interested in seeing their potential clients and customers in Los Angeles have more discretionary income. Also faith leaders and some of a broad section and coalition from the community.

Ultimately, we expect this will affect 12,000. It’s also consistent with a tradition in Los Angeles of being on the forefront of the living-wage movement. Back in the mid-90s, the city council at that time was I think the first in the country, certainly one of the first, to pass a living wage ordinance for people who were doing business with or had contracts with the city and that sort of set a precedent. The city then expanded it to hotels near the airport and then to the airport itself, so we’re continuing sort of a progressive tradition of using fair wages to fuel the economy here in Los Angeles.

Niraj Chokshi reports for GovBeat, The Post's state and local policy blog.

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Niraj Chokshi · February 20, 2014