By Judith Scherr

BERKELEY -- The City Council stunned supporters of an aggressive minimum wage hike -- and pleased the crowd of small business owners who said the wage ought "not be raised too high too fast" -- by approving a law proposed by Mayor Tom Bates at the May 6 council meeting that brings the city's minimum wage to $10 on Jan. 1, 2015 and $10.75 by July 2016.

The measure includes creation of a committee to study future increases.

The statewide minimum wage will increase from $8 to $9 an hour on July 1, and to $10 on Jan. 1, 2016.

Berkeley's wage hike trails San Francisco where the minimum wage went to $10.74 on Jan. 1 and could increase in 2015 to $13 an hour for businesses with fewer than 100 employees and $15 an hour for larger businesses if a proposed ballot measure is successful. San Jose's base wage is $10.15. Richmond is also studying an increase.

"They caved in to the business community," Labor Commission Chairman Sam Frankel said as he left the meeting.

"It's a real slap on the face of the Labor Commission that worked on this an entire year," he told the council earlier.

The commission's proposal would have raised the minimum wage to $10.74 in June.

But business owners, while acknowledging the need for higher worker pay than the state minimum of $8 per hour ($9 per hour in July), said their businesses could fail with increases mandated in earlier iterations of the ordinance.

"This town is made up of independent businesses," said Dandy Harris, owner of two Telegraph Avenue enterprises, addressing the council. "We bring a lot to the community. I want to be here six years from now. I'm not so afraid of $10.75 an hour, but $15.25 an hour scares the crap out of me."

Many restaurateurs who addressed the council pointed to costs they could not control, such as escalating food costs and rent. Several asked the council to lobby Sacramento for commercial rent control.

But others expressed betrayal over a lesser wage.

"This is a sad day for Berkeley," said Anton Burrell, organizer with Berkeley Organizing Congregations for Action.

"When people are living right down the street that can barely make ends meet, we can't make a decision (to help)," Burrell said.

Movement for a higher local minimum wage began a year ago, when the council asked its Labor Commission to address the issue.

After numerous public meetings, the commission wrote a law kicking off with $10.74 per hour in June and increasing with the cost of living.

Beginning in 2015, the wage would have risen an additional 55 cents per hour each year, until it caught up with Berkeley's current "living wage" of $13.34 per hour, the minimum employers that contract with the city must pay their employees.

The law would have included a $2.22 per hour supplement for workers whose employers do not contribute that amount toward health benefits.

But, after lobbying the council, some labor commissioners and activists with Raise the Wage East Bay determined a council majority would not support that law. They crafted a compromise with Councilman Laurie Capitelli, which Capitelli presented at a May 1 meeting attended by more than 200 people at Longfellow Middle School.

The "Capitelli compromise" proposed a $10 per hour minimum wage beginning in August and increasing between 75 cents and $1 per hour annually until 2020, when the wage would reach $15.25, then continue increasing with the cost of living. It included no health benefit supplement.

At the May 1 meeting Capitelli's compromise drew praise from the Alameda County Central Labor Council, the Berkeley Federation of Teachers, the Berkeley school board and dozens of individuals, but was roundly criticized by the Chamber of Commerce, restaurateurs and other small business owners.

The council delayed a vote on the compromise until the May 6 meeting, where Capitelli was expected to reintroduce his plan. Instead, Capitelli took the compromise off the table.

"I made a pledge last Thursday night, to bring it to a vote tonight, and I am now in a position that I have to renege on that," he said, to a mix of applause and boos from the public.

Capitelli proposed having a committee study the issue "in the light of concerns expressed by the business community and others."

But others on the council wanted a vote that night and made various proposals, with Bates' plan winning 8-1, with Councilman Gordon Wozniak opposing. The ordinance will be finalized with a second reading May 20.

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