Business & Economy

Why isn't there a push to raise the minimum wage in Orange County?

Fast food workers gather at the Central Library in Downtown Los Angeles to protest for a $15 minimum wage.
Fast food workers gather at the Central Library in Downtown Los Angeles to protest for a $15 minimum wage.
Benjamin Brayfield/KPCC

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While the push to raise the minimum wage in Los Angeles has been loud and present, in Orange County, it's non-existent. In fact, officials in Irvine voted Tuesday to go the other way, and repeal a living wage ordinance there.

Part of the reason is obvious: conservative politics.

“We don’t have a lot of support on the councils,”  said Ana Cabral, an organizer with the Orange County Labor Federation, and she said that's been labor's focus. "In order to have that, we have to do the grassroots work to get people elected."

But another reason, she said, is the lack of a dominant city. Changing policy is like quilt work among the nearly three-dozen city councils.

The federation is evaluating which cities would be a good start - possibly Santa Ana and Anaheim, with their dense communities of working class Latino residents.

“It’s harder work in Orange County,” she said.

About a dozen people attended Irvine's city council meeting Tuesday and spoke out against repealing the living wage ordinance - but none were workers that would be affected.

The ordinance required certain businesses with city contracts to pay employees at least $10.82 an hour, including employees working in other parts of Orange County.

California’s minimum wage is already set to go up by a dollar, to $10 per hour in January.

Across the state, officials in cities like San Francisco, Oakland and Los Angeles have voted to increase their minimum wage above that. San Diego voters will decide on an hourly pay rate next year.

One reason it may have been easy to go the other way in Irvine is that the people working minimum wage jobs in Irvine don’t live there, according to Robert Solomon, a law professor at the University of California – Irvine specializing in affordable housing and community economic development. 

“Where’s the constituency?” he asked. “In L.A., the constituency is people who are actually holding the job.”

But Orange County business interests said wages are almost guaranteed to go up with or without an ordinance.

“I think the most impact will be from employers voluntarily raising wages,” said Wallace Walrod, chief economic advisor at the Orange County Business Council.

While the unemployment rate in Los Angeles is at 7.1 percent, Orange County's is 4.1 percent, according to April 2015 numbers from the California Employment Development Department. Both counties are doing better than the recession, when double-digit unemployment numbers left people feeling grateful to have a job at all.

The O.C. Business Council doesn’t have a position on raising the minimum wage right now, Walrod said. They are watching how jobs will be affected in Los Angeles.

"It will be a fairly quick lesson to see which side is right," he said. "Does raising the minimum wage create jobs or cost us jobs?"

Walrod said the growing entrepreneurial economy in Orange County - self employed, contact workers and people making a living off the "sharing economy" - could be another reason why there's no minimum wage debate.

“They have a very different view of the world of work,” he said. “Orange County and L.A. County are two good place to see how that could turn out.”

Correction: An earlier version of this story gave incorrect figures for the minimum wage certain businesses with city contracts must pay employees and for the California minimum wage starting in January. They are $10.82 an hour and $10 an hour, respectively. KPCC regrets the error.