RICHMOND -- Local voters may have a chance to give the city's lowest earners the highest minimum wage in the region if the City Council agrees to place a measure on the November ballot.
A proposal by Councilwoman Jovanka Beckles, to be discussed at Tuesday's council meeting, asks staff to craft three potential minimum wage hikes for the November general election ballot of $11, $12.30 or $15 per hour. If the council approves one of the rates, it would go before voters Nov. 4.
"My experience in working with low-income residents is they want to get off the government dependence and afford basic necessities for their families, and the current minimum wage is just not enough," Beckles said. "People are struggling."
Beckles' proposed hike would include exemptions for Richmond employers with fewer than 10 employees and local businesses operating less than two years in the city that have fewer than 26 employees. Beckles said the City Council could raise the minimum wage with a majority vote, but she'd rather the voters decide.
"It should be on the ballot for community input on the process, rather than the council just telling the community," Beckles said. "It's not a special election, so the costs of the ballot measure would be low."
Even the lowest proposal would be a significant increase over the current state rate of $8 per hour, and the highest in the Bay Area. San Francisco's $10.74 minimum wage is currently the region's highest; San Jose's rate is $10.15.
In Berkeley, a proposal under consideration would increase the minimum wage to $10.55 per hour. SeaTac, Wash., voters in November approved the highest municipal minimum wage in the nation, $15 per hour.
The state's minimum wage is already on the way up, slated to bump to $9 per hour in July and to $10 per hour in January 2016.
But the Richmond measure is sure to draw opposition from other council members and some business leaders, who complain that the proposal was not run by them and say the rate could worsen Richmond's unemployment problem. Richmond's unemployment rate stands at 11.9 percent, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, higher than the state rate of 8.9 percent.
"This is the first we've heard of this," said Judy Morgan, president and CEO of Richmond's Chamber of Commerce. "Cooperation between council and business community is sorely lacking. The council should look to create jobs, not end jobs."
Morgan said the majority of the chamber's roughly 450 members are businesses with fewer than 10 employees, which would be exempt under the proposed measure.
Councilman Nat Bates also expressed skepticism.
"I'm not voting for anything other than what the national minimum wage is," Bates said. "We are in no position to establish higher rates."
Councilman Tom Butt, generally a supporter of Beckles and her progressive allies, said he supports further study but has not yet decided whether he thinks the increase is a good idea.
"It's more complicated in Richmond than in larger cities like San Francisco and San Jose with red hot economies," Butt said.
Beckles said she hopes the proposal sparks a larger local debate during the year, which will also feature four council races and a contest to decide the city's next mayor.
"By passing this resolution, the City Council is starting a process that will allow Richmond residents to debate and decide the appropriate level of minimum wage for Richmond," Beckles wrote in her proposal.
San Francisco: $10.74
San Jose: $10.15
Richmond, proposed: $11, $12.30 or $15.
SeaTac, Wash.: $15
United States: $7.25
If you go
What: Richmond City Council meeting
When: 6:30 p.m. Tuesday
Where: Richmond City Council chamber, 440 Civic Center Plaza
Why: Discussion about potential minimum wage increase