Santa Monica will raise the minimum wage to $15 … eventually.

After hours of discussion and deliberation at their Sept. 29 meeting, the council voted to endorse the concept of a minimum wage but delayed voting on a formal ordinance pending additional analysis of several issues including service charges vs. tips, mandatory sick leave, enforcement options, exemptions for seasonal/transitional employees, incorporation of a hotel living wage rule and definitions of covered employers.

Council directed staff to conduct public outreach and additional research on each of those topics and return with a revised draft ordinance as soon as possible, with an expectation that council could rehear the issue in December.

“Staff was amazingly able to come up with a first reading of the ordinance, which we determined tonight after hearing from the public and our discussion, needed some work,” said Mayor Kevin McKeown. “So we’re now asking them, not to start fresh at all, but to go back with the direction we’ve given tonight and modify the draft ordinance tonight and address all these concerns. I think that’s a quite doable task.”

While “doable,” the work won’t be quick. McKeown asked to have a new proposal back to council before Thanksgiving but staff said they would need more time given the large amount of public outreach required to resolve some of the pending questions.

“We want it done in a timely fashion but we want it done in a comprehensive fashion,” said Councilwoman Pam O’Connor.

Notably absent from the “to be studied” list is an exemption to the minimum wage for union businesses, known as supersession.

McKeown reached into his past as a radio DJ to make a joke about the 1968 record titled “Super Session” before addressing the issue seriously and asking the council if anyone wanted to discuss removing the clause from Santa Monica’s rules. Seeing no response he said the issue was settled in Santa Monica.

“I think we can assure people that we’re rock solid on that issue,” he said.

The City of Los Angeles removed a similar exemption from their ordinance and business groups had asked Santa Monica to do the same, arguing the rule puts non-union businesses at a competitive disadvantage. Critics said the rule exists as a tool to pressure businesses into accepting unionization.

Councilwoman Sue Himmelrich said she initially opposed the union exemption but changed her mind after talking with workers.

“What I learned was most people who work in these low wage jobs, would prefer to be part of a union that protects other aspects, beyond wages, of their lives,” she said.

She said the other benefits of union membership, including the ability exert control over their working environment, were often of greater importance than the wages and allowing a union exemption preserved the workers rights to prioritize their own issues.

“I had no right to tell workers what I thought was best for them,” she said. “These workers should have a right to control their own destiny.”

While union members strongly support raising the minimum wage, organized labor actually requested a delay on the vote Tuesday night. Representatives said they want the Santa Monica ordinance to serve as a model for others in the area and to do so, it should be as comprehensive as possible with specific rules about sick leave, protections against wage theft and incorporation of a hotel living wage proposal similar to rules in Los Angeles.

Francis Engler, with Unite Here Local 11 said his organization supports the minimum wage proposal and values the council’s efforts to protect union workers but said he’d rather see a single, comprehensive law that addressed every question.

“We’re going to be so careful about the details of the language because we really have to get it right here,” he said, “This is the place. If there’s anywhere where we’re going to get it just right, it’s here.”

Aside from the union concerns, council also asked for more information on regulating service fees in a way that requires the fees be distributed to employees above and beyond the minimum wage.

Defining seasonal exemptions, exemptions for transitional employment and the definition of an “employer” were also subjects of debate.

Staff was directed to meet with interested parties to help resolve the outstanding issues.

Councilwoman Gleam Davis said it was important to balance with the new rules in a way that protects small businesses while maintaining a strong rule of law.

“I’m hoping that staff and the stakeholders throughout the community will try to think a little bit out of the box here,” she said. “Because I think one of the things we’re going to find ourselves wrestling with there is not just the definition of employer but local business, small business … we’re all sensitive to the idea that we don’t want to over burden our local mom and pops so that we drive them out of business, but it also seems to me that we want to be careful about carving out too many exemptions because pretty much then you have a situation where you have this great ordinance but nobody falls under it or very few people fall under it.”

The rules proposed Sept. 29 were based on a minimum wage ordinance recently adopted by the City of Los Angeles. In both cases, the proposal calls for wage increases beginning next year and reaching $15 an hour by 2020.

City Manager Rick Cole said the city should focus on developing strong rules that address local concerns but said everyone would benefit from an approach that was as close to the Los Angeles rules as possible.

“I wouldn’t have come here if I didn’t believe in Santa Monica’s high standards and sense of uniqueness, but this is one where our ability to lead should be one where we lead in a way that we hope others will follow,” he said. “So the closer we hue to the L.A. model, the more likely we’ll get the other 86 cities to join in a regional effort and what one day we hope will be a statewide effort.”


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