SANTA CRUZ — The fervently liberal seaside city hopes to set an example Tuesday night by passing the nation’s highest “living wage” – $11 an hour, or $12 without benefits.
Like most of the roughly 50 other living wage ordinances nationwide, Santa Cruz’s would at first only cover full-time workers for the city or for-profit companies with city contracts. Most, if not all, city workers already make more than $11 an hour.
But officials in this surfing haven and college town of 56,000, 75 miles down the coast from San Francisco, have a more ambitious plan for the coming months. They want to extend the minimum wage to temporary workers employed by the city and to workers for social service agencies funded by the city.
“Our hope is that the city can act as a role model,” Mayor Keith Sugar said.
While some economists contend “living wage” laws are symbolic and have little effect, supporters of the Santa Cruz ordinance believe it will give hundreds of people a boost, even in communities elsewhere in the county.
Theresa Espinoza, a 34-year-old single mother of five, works in nearby Watsonville as a receptionist for the Santa Cruz County Immigration Project, a nonprofit organization that gets money from the city of Santa Cruz. She said her organization recently decided to give her a raise from less than $9 an hour to $11 because it expects that will soon be mandated anyway by the new ordinance.
Even so, she still has to work part-time as a library clerk to support her family.
“I’m not even able to buy a house. I don’t think I’ll ever be able,” Espinoza said Monday. “I really think about those things. Do I have to wait to my children are of age to work? What I really want them to do is get an education and try to find a different way of life.”
The California Industrial Welfare Commission voted 5-0 on Monday to raise the state’s minimum wage by a dollar, to $6.75, despite protests from business leaders and farmers who said it will give other states an unfair competitive edge. The federal minimum wage is $5.15.
There was no formal business opposition to the Santa Cruz ordinance, which would take effect on Thanksgiving and lets companies facing hardships appeal for an exemption. Future increases in the minimum wage would be tied to the Consumer Price Index for the San Francisco Bay area.
The National Association of Home Builders recently ranked Santa Cruz the second-least affordable area in the nation — behind only San Francisco.
“Santa Cruz is a paradise destination for a lot of people, and our proximity to Silicon Valley and the big dollars there have a lot to do with why our housing prices and the cost of living have escalated here,” said city councilman Michael Hernandez, a supporter of the ordinance.
Added Sandy Brown, coordinator for the Santa Cruz County Coalition for a Living Wage: “People who are performing service jobs and city work, child care, all of these industries are losing workers because people can’t afford to live here. We believe this will keep people living in our community.”
The living wage in Santa Cruz would be the highest in the country, said Ron Bird, chief economist for the Employment Policy Foundation, a think tank in Washington, D.C.
But he says such well intentioned laws have little effect, since they target only small slices of the workforce, and many companies forgo doing business with cities rather than greatly increase their labor costs.
The federal government’s earned income tax credit, he said, is a more thorough and direct way of helping poor families.
The Second Harvest Food Bank of Santa Cruz and San Benito Counties gets $57,000 a year from the city of Santa Cruz, and so executive director Willy Elliott-McCrea is preparing to make certain that all 20 of his employees make at least $11 an hour. A handful make less, as little as $9.40.
He said the food bank, which serves 38,000 people, will have to work harder to raise money to cover the new living wage requirement, but he strongly supports the ordinance. “It’s clearly the right thing to do,” he said.
On the Net:
Santa Cruz County Coalition for a Living Wage: http://members.cruzers.com/cab/livingwage/livingwage.html
City home page: http://www.ci.santa-cruz.ca.us
Employment Policy Foundation: http://www.epf.org