With the federal minimum wage stuck at $7.25, the battle for better wages has moved to the state and local levels. Workers on the front lines celebrated one of their biggest victories yet this week when the Los Angeles City Council approved what may be the highest minimum wage in the country for hotel workers. But passage of the $15.37 hourly rate also highlights the challenges unions face in preserving jobs and growing wages as they target specific areas and industries.
The rate adopted Wednesday will likely apply to only 39 of the city's 350 hotels because of exemptions. It could also wind up backfiring in the short term by triggering layoffs at affected hotels and creating an "ill-fated competitive difference" with nearby exempt businesses, said Bob Amano, the executive director of the Hotel Association of Los Angeles.
Still, workers say big victories like this help bring attention to the issue and give a boost to nationwide efforts to raise the minimum wage.
"Workers across the country are gaining momentum in their fight for better jobs and better wages as seen in this win," said Gabe Morgan, vice president of Local 32BJ of the Service Employees International Union, citing other recent victories like the $12 minimum wage now on the books for airport contractors and subcontractors doing business with the city of Philadelphia.
The $15.37 hotel wage passage leapfrogged over a proposal from Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti, who has pushed for a gradual, citywide increase in the minimum wage to $13.25 by 2017. It's also higher than the $10.10 federal rate proposed by President Obama, which would be the first nationwide increase since 2009.
In fact, the minimum wage is higher in many states and cities now than the federally required minimum, with San Francisco city and county currently the highest at $10.74, according to the Economic Policy Institute. Seattle will have the highest citywide rate at $15 once it's fully phased in, starting in 2017 with large employers and applying to everyone by 2021. And voters in Alaska, Arkansas, Nebraska and South Dakota will consider ballot initiatives in November that would raise the minimum wage above the national rate.