It's official: Mountain View will boost its minimum wage to $15 an hour by the start of 2018 - regardless of whether other regional cities decide to follow its lead.
In a packed meeting Tuesday, City Council members in a 5-2 vote gave their third and final approval to a staggered plan to eventually raise the base wage by nearly 50 percent. By doing so, Mountain View thrust itself in the vanguard -- it's the first South Bay city to fully commit to better align low-end pay with the ever-rising cost of living in Silicon Valley.
According to the plan, the city's minimum hourly wage -- currently $10.30 -- would increase to $11 on Jan. 1, 2016. That rate would continue notching up at the start of each year, to $13 an hour in 2017, and $15 in 2018. From that point on, the city pledged the base wage could continue to rise, depending on the performance of a Bay Area-focused Consumer Price Index.
The decision came after the council heard tales from Mountain View workers who described holding down multiple service jobs as the only way to eke out a living in the area.
Conversely, a smaller group of restaurant owners said they weren't much better off than their employees, trying to survive amid tight margins, fierce competition and rising expenses all around.
With the first wage increase coming in about two months, Tied House marketing director Carolyn Hopkins-Vasquez worried the blow would be too much, too soon. As proposed, the wage increase would force the business to cut its 70-person workforce in half, she warned.
"If you raise the minimum wage as quickly as you are, our business will be closed," she said. "I'm struggling just as much as everyone else."
Despite those pleas, it came as no big surprise that the Mountain View council went forward with the minimum-wage increase -- council members had already come out in support of the idea in two earlier votes. The real question of the night was whether elected leaders would delay the roll-out or dilute the wage hike with exceptions and contingencies.
With so-called "carve-outs," the city pondered allowing exceptions for businesses to pay less than minimum wage for certain employee groups, such as those earning tips, trainees or those who are receiving employer-paid benefits such as healthcare. The legality of adding those exceptions was thrown into question, and the council decided to take the matter up as a separate vote.
With a potential conflict of interest as the owner of a Baskin Robbins store, Mayor John McAlister recused himself from the vote on carve-outs, although the city attorney said he was within his rights to vote on the full minimum-wage increase. In the end, the carve-outs were rejected by the council in a 5-1 vote, with Councilman John Inks casting the lone vote in opposition.
Council members explained they wanted to ensure Mountain View didn't become a higher wage "island", putting local businesses at a disadvantage. Up until this point, the recent push in the Bay Area to raise minimum wage has largely been spearheaded by voter-approved ballot initiatives in large cities, such as San Francisco and Oakland.
To varying degrees, several other South Bay cities have expressed support for raising the base wage. As Mountain View's closest ally in the effort, Sunnyvale is expected to soon follow with its own minimum-wage hike. But many other cities are looking to follow the lead of San Jose, which is currently waiting for the results of an independent economic study of raising minimum wage to $15 by 2018. That study isn't expected to be complete until early next year.
Mountain View leaders made clear they didn't want to wait that long, saying the income disparity in the area required quicker action.
"For me, this is a piece of a puzzle where we're trying to solve a lot of socioeconomic issues," said Councilman Chris Clark said. "We're trying to address housing, wages, the whole gamut as best we can."
But a debate broke on whether the council was really unloading its trickiest problems onto small businesses. More than one person pointed out the council seemed inconsistent by using the minimum wage as a tool to lift low-earning workers, yet refusing one week earlier to put the onus on residential landlords by studying limits on rent increases or protections against evictions.
The two issues were fundamentally different, said Councilman Ken Rosenberg.
"They're different in their implication and in their academic studies that support or refute them," he said. "There's too many policy flaws with rent control, but a minimum wage increase, as long as it's not prohibitive, has an economic benefit."
In response, Councilman Lenny Seigel said he would entertain controls on commercial rents as well as residential.
As the council moved to a vote, Mayor McAlister pitched a plan B, urging his colleagues to consider a more gradual wage increase to lessen the impact on businesses. Instead of $15 an hour by 2018, he proposed delaying it to 2020.
"I'm concerned about the economic swing of things and I'd rather have (wages) phased along and not shot up," he said.
But other council members declined to take up that alternative. Making a motion, Councilwoman Pat Showalter pushed ahead with the 2018 schedule. McAlister asked for a contingency that Mountain View would revise its minimum wage schedule if a regional plan emerged among South Bay cities. His motion ended up dying without a second.
In the final vote, the council approved the minimum wage increase in a 5-2 vote, with McAlister and Inks opposed.