University of California president Janet Napolitano (AP Photo/Jeff Chiu)

The University of California will raise the minimum wage for employees and contractors to $15 an hour over the next three years, bringing it to more than double the federal level and plunging the public university system into the thick of the political debate about worker pay.

Because the system is a huge employer, the third largest in the state after the federal and state governments there, the decision is sure to have an impact not only on workers’ and university budgets but on the politics of the issue. UC employs nearly 200,000 people

Janet Napolitano, the president of the UC system and a former Cabinet member of the Obama administration, announced Wednesday that minimum wage for workers, including contracted laborers, would rise to $13 an hour on Oct. 1, to $14 a year later and $15 an hour in October 2017.

California’s minimum wage is $9 at the moment, set to bump up to $10 an hour in January. The federal minimum wage is $7.25 an hour.

“Through its education, research and public service missions, the University of California’s students, faculty and staff have made us into a world-renowned institution,” Napolitano said in a statement. “And our community does not exist in a vacuum. How we support our workers and their families impacts Californians who might never set foot on one of our campuses. This is the right thing to do — for our workers and their families, for our mission and values, and to enhance UC’s leadership role by becoming the first public university in the United States to voluntarily establish a minimum wage of 15 dollars.”

Supporters say a higher minimum helps struggling workers get by. Opponents argue the mandates can force employers into cutting jobs or limiting hours in order to afford it.

On Tuesday, the country’s biggest county by population, Los Angeles, raised its minimum wage to $15 an hour.

The increase for the UC system is estimated to cost $14 million a year, plus anticipated indirect costs from contractors. The annual payroll for the system is more than $12 billion.

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