City Approves Living Wage

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The City of Berkeley unanimously adopted one of the nation's highest living wages after more than a year of protest from community activists and low-wage workers.

Workers employed by the city or businesses that contract with the city or reside on city property will receive a minimum wage of $9.75 per hour under the ordinance. For workers without health benefits, $1.62 per hour is added to the wage.

That means a lot to Leahndra O'Neal, a worker at the city-owned Sather Gate garage.

"It would mean basically getting my life straight," said O'Neal, who has trouble paying her rent on $6.50 an hour she currently makes. "(Getting the living wage) would make me feel more important, more appreciated. People should get what they deserve."

O'Neal said she gave citations, valet-parked cars, and sat in an elevator for 11 hours yesterday. Some workers have worked at the garage for over five years and still receive $6 an hour, she said.

Berkeley City Councilmember Kriss Worthington, who proposed the ordinance last year, hailed the council's decision.

"I'm thrilled that Berkeley is joining the ranks of dozens of cities across the country that have established the living wage," he said.

The City Council still has to approve the ordinance again at their next meeting and then wait 30 days to allow community members to appeal the law.

"Berkeley just isn't affordable," said Amaha Kassa, a community organizer. "A two-bedroom apartment costs $1,200 a month, but if you work full time at a minimum wage job you only make $966 a month before taxes."

Kassa said 40 other cities and counties have living wage, including Oakland, San Jose and Hayward.

Workers at the Radisson Hotel Berkeley Marina have been some of the ordinance's most vocal supporters.

"It took me 28 years (working at the Radisson) to get $12 and some cents and not retirement," said Addie Washington, a floor supervisor, 71. "I'm way past age to retire but I can't. I can't live off social security alone with the cost of living."

Washington said she supports the living wage in the hopes that her younger co-workers will benefit from it more than herself.

The ordinance will not affect the Radisson, which is on city property, until its lease comes up for renewal. Since the lease continues for several decades, community activists have called on the city to adopt an additional ordinance to enforce the living wage immediately for businesses that operate on Berkeley's waterfront zone.

"We are working hard and we're not getting no respect," said Roxana Gibson, a housekeeper at the hotel. "The reason why we would like a living wage is they don't want to give us a union."

Gibson, who has been working at the hotel for 10 years, said she made $7.50 an hour before the workers tried to organize a union. In an attempt to stop workers from unionizing, the hotel brought its starting wages up to $9.25 from $6.25, Gibson said.

Only approximately 50 workers will be affected immediately by the current ordinance. As contracts and leases come up for renewal, more and more workers will receive the living wage.

Mayor Shirley Dean said she worries that part-time jobs that paid the living wage would be taken by students instead of community members who are more in need.

"I'm willing to try it and see if it works," she said.

Rachel Rupert, CEO of Berkeley's Chamber of Commerce, said her organization, which represents many of the city's businesses, did not recommend passing the ordinance.

"Our position was that we did not want Berkeley's living wage any higher than Oakland's," she said. "The good news is that it will not affect that many people."

Rupert said the city will ultimately pay the price for the ordinance instead of businesses.

"If I were a business, I probably would just build (the cost of the living wage) into my contract price," she said.


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