Wage panel splits on state minimum wage hike proposal

SACRAMENTO - A divided California Wage Board on Friday rejected proposals to boost the state's minimum wage and eventually tie it to the rate of inflation.

The impasse between labor and management throws the decision back to the Industrial Welfare Commission, which will meet to consider the issue next month despite the lack of recommendations from the wage board.

The eight labor representatives on the wage board twice proposed to increase the state's minimum wage, then boost it automatically each year to keep up with inflation. Both proposals were blocked by the board's eight management representatives.

''I think we all know that we're not going to reach any agreement here. The IWC is going to have to reach a decision on its own,'' California Labor Federation President Tom Rankin said after his proposals failed.

He first proposed raising California's $5.75-per-hour minimum wage to $7.25 on Jan. 1, 2001, then to $8.75 on Jan. 1, 2002. Annual increases would be tied to inflation after Jan. 1, 2003.

That would roughly bring the minimum wage back to the same buying power it had in 1968, Rankin said.

That's what California voters thought they were accomplishing in 1996 when they approved Proposition 210 to raise the state's minimum wage to its current level, countered California Hotel and Motel Association Executive Vice President Jim Abrams.

When his first plan was blocked, Rankin proposed boosting the minimum to $6.75 an hour in 2001; $7.50 in 2002; $8 in 2003; and tying it to inflation beginning in 2004. The wage board again split on an 8-8 vote.

Rankin cited estimates that about a million Californians earn minimum wage; 52 percent are women and four out of five are over the age of 20.

The board's four hours of debate brought emotional testimony - and testiness - from both sides.

Board member Rosalina Garcia, a minimum-wage janitor from Sacramento, testified in Spanish that her 13-year-old son has offered to drop out of school to get a job to supplement her wages. Restaurant owners and hospital managers who also sit on the board countered with their own stories of trying to make ends meet in the face of rising wages.

California's minimum wage is 60 cents above the federal minimum, but Congress is considering raising the federal minimum to $6.15.

Board member Julianne Broyles, director of insurance and employee relations for the California Chamber of Commerce, said the state should wait to see what Congress does before it acts on its own. Otherwise, California risks pricing itself out of the job market, she and other employer representatives said.

Rankin disagreed.

''We are not Mississippi. The cost of living here is much higher than it is in other states,'' he said.

California's ''unprecedented economic prosperity has primarily gone to the people on the top ... while the people on the bottom are not sharing the increase in prosperity and the increase in wealth that we've seen in California the last few years,'' Rankin said.

The wage board was created by the welfare commission in the hope that management and labor representatives could reach a consensus on minimum wage issues.

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