Getting the max from the minimum: The drive for a minimum-wage hike should put poor people's needs first, advocates say

Invariably, when the idea of increasing the minimum wage comes up, hands are wrung over the costs to business. Objections come from groups like the San Francisco Chamber of Commerce and the Committee on Jobs, both of which claim that hotels and restaurants would flee the city if they were forced to give their lowest-wage workers a raise.

But what's the true cost of supporting a family with a minimum-wage job?

"The poorest Americans are about two times as likely to die. People in low-wage jobs have less access to health care ... food, shelter, clothing, and transit," Dr. Rajiv Bhatia, of the San Francisco Department of Public Health, told local officials last week. "Even when people have the money to buy food, it's of lower quality," which perpetuates the cycle of poor health, Bhatia said.

Speaking at a Board of Supervisors Finance Committee hearing Feb. 27, Bhatia told the supervisors to consider those factors as they study Sup. Matt Gonzalez's proposal to establish a citywide minimum wage. Currently the feds set the minimum at $5.15, and the state of California sets it at $6.75 an hour. Full-time work at the state rate earns workers just over $14,000 a year.

San Francisco already has a living-wage law, which guarantees a $10-an-hour minimum to employees of city contractors, including all San Francisco airport workers. Preliminary data on the impact of that wage hike, which kicked in a year and a half ago, indicates it has already reduced turnover among airport baggage screeners by 25 percent, UC Berkeley economics professor Michael Reich told the committee.

For Gonzalez, the issue is a fundamental part of any progressive plan for the city. "How could we not pay attention to what people are making as a wage in San Francisco? It just seems like the most fundamental question. It's related to so many issues: housing, homelessness, and public health," he said in an interview.

At the committee hearing, members of the public told officials that people of all backgrounds would get a leg up with a citywide minimum wage.

Jose Luis Pavon told the committee about growing up in the city as a child of immigrants. He said that offering youth the choice of earning a livable salary could, in many cases, permanently alter lives. "Young people who drop out of the educational system are forced to decide between low-paying jobs, low-skill work, or crime," he said. "As you grow up, and you have limited access to education, you turn to the drug trade, which has a trickle effect on crime. So from that position I think young people ... will support this."

In Chinatown the daily fears of homelessness and ill health that new immigrants grapple with could be alleviated by a higher minimum wage, said Leon Chow, cochair of the Chinese Progressive Association. "Whenever you hear about a living wage, you always hear about the negative impact on businesses. Cheap food in Chinatown is subsidized by cheap labor. What they hire in Chinatown are new immigrants with [few other options]. But because of the low income you cannot even count on unemployment insurance. [It] will face enormous opposition from the Chinese Chamber of Commerce, but a municipal minimum wage is our goal to improve conditions for immigrants," he told the committee.

Advocates urged the supervisors to commission a thorough study to assess the potential for the idea and to determine how big a raise locals need to escape the poverty cycle. New Orleans is the only other U.S. city with its own minimum-wage law. That law was passed less than a month ago and is being challenged in court.

E-mail Rachel Brahinsky at

1042 Grant Ave, 5th Floor, San Francisco, CA 94133
phone:  415-391-6986  fax:  415-391-6987