Audience members listen to arguments for and against raising the minimum wage in Van Nuys City Hall.

Photos Courtesy of Allison Mannos, LAANE/Raise the Wage Coalition

Hundreds of people showed up at Van Nuys City Hall Tuesday, March 31, to provide testimony at a public hearing on the proposal to increase the minimum wage.

There were long lines of people standing outside the building waiting to get inside; many were low wage earners.

“We didn’t expect such a large crowd,” said an LAPD officer, who staggered the crowd’s entry by groups of 30 at a time into the hearing. The large room was filled to capacity. 

Some people wore union jackets. Others, representing the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), wore arm bands that read “1 Fair Wage.” One family carried a handmade sign that said, “Family Defenders.” A group of people wore T-shirts with numbers or a letters and set in a row to spell out “15 & Enforce.” 

The proposal calls for raising the minimum wage from $9 an hour to $13.25 an hour by 2017, $15.25 an hour by 2019, and higher levels in subsequent years based on the Consumer Price Index.

The Los Angeles City Council’s Economic Development Committee, comprised of city council members, heard from scores of people who spoke of dealing with wage theft and having to work more than one job in order to make ends meet, while many small business owners shared their challenges to stay in business with rising costs.

Aida Torres, a single mother of a 2-year-old daughter, works in a restaurant and said she supports raising the minimum wage and stopping wage theft.

  “At my work, we don’t receive much of our tips on our job. Sometimes we only get 2-3 percent. Sometimes we get 5 percent [of our tips] but that isn’t often. The tips that we get are taken to also give to the cooks but they only get a quarter (25 cents) for every hour worked.  So I support fair payment for all of us,” Torres said.

“When we finish one shift at a restuarant, we go to another restaurant to work another,” said a kitchen worker.  “Still, I can’t afford to pay my bills. Some of us work 3-4 jobs and still I make so little, I can’t ever take my children out even once a month for an outing or out to eat.”    

Eric Arce said he was testifying on behalf of his parents who couldn’t attend the hearing.

“Both of my parents are in their 60’s and both continue to work. They are still working. They’ve worked half of their adult lives working in restaurants, and I’ve seen firsthand what it’s like to see them struggle,” he shared.  

“They are still working at minimum wage occupations, and they are still struggling. To be in their 60’s and still working frustrates me and angers me. How can you save for retirement when you are working for poverty wages?  It’s impossible, it cannot be done. So I’m asking right now, not only to raise the minimum wage but to improve the lot for tip workers — it can be done. We are facing a crisis in this city. If we don’t do something the division between the ‘haves’ and ‘have nots’ is going to get worse. Something needs to be done,” Arce said. 

The owner of Town and Country Restaurant in Van Nuys told the committee that  between the increases to workman’s compensation, and now the prospect of increasing the minimum wage, has caused him to wonder why anyone would want to do business in California, “I would seriously think about packing up and leaving California,” the owner said.

Paul Rodriguez, owner of the Buenos Aires restaurant and market in Van Nuys, said that he employs about 100 people and acknowledged that he appreciates those that work for him. But increasing the minimum wage, he said, would impact his ability to continue employ all of them.

“We have to be realistic,” Rodriguez said. “I have tons of applications from cooks and others who need more hours because they aren’t getting them at the places they currently work because they don’t want to go over 30 hours and they don’t want to give them overtime. How increasing the minimum wage will improve this, I have no idea. It doesn’t make sense to me.

“I understand poverty is a problem, [but] increasing the minimum wage to $13-$15 an hour isn’t going to help people who don’t have jobs and it’s not going to help people who work 15-20 hours a week,” he said. 

Small business owners pointed out they face increased costs, including a rise in employer taxes, workman’s compensation and the increased cost of providing medical and dental benefits.

Another owner of a family restaurant group said she believed that employers give opportunities, especially for those new to the workforce.

“I don’t think that anyone working full time should be living in poverty, but I am asking for consideration for a teenage wage for those who are working their first job,” the owner said. “The restaurant gives many [young people] their first jobs and it helps them begin their journey into the workforce.”  

Cathy Deppe, representing the L.A. Chapter of the statewide working women’s organization 9 to 5, supports raising the minimum wage. She said there is a serious wage gap for women who already suffer wage theft.

“A living wage that we can actually collect is already a serious necessity, and until women can have equal pay with men, wage theft will continue to cut deeper and deeper,” Deppe said.  

“Tip workers are 70 percent women and they earn an average of $15,000 a year.  To pay a sub-minimum wage hurts workers. Why would you want to institutionalize low wages and and cement the gender wage gap even more?  The older woman worker is relegated to the back, which results in even fewer tips, and results in having even more of her hours cut and a sub-minimum wage for her results in an automatic clock out when business is slow.” 

A Van Nuys attorney who only identified himself as “Jason,” working for the nonprofit Wage Justice Center, said if he doesn’t want to pay his taxes he can’t simply change his name, but that those in business guilty of wage theft frequently change their business names to avoid paying their employees.

“As an attorney, the employers that I go out after day in and day out have wage judgements for money that they owe [to employees], but they just get a new business license and a new business name,” he said. “I strongly support enforcement so that the law will have actual teeth.” 

Prior to Tuesday’s hearing, Mayor Eric Garcetti met with U.S. Labor Secretary Thomas E. Perez on César Chávez Day, March 30, to discuss ways to combat wage theft and other labor violations affecting workers in Los Angeles. They took part in “A Fair Day’s Pay” forum organized by SEIU, and heard from victims of wage theft.

Los Angeles workers lose $1 billion from their paychecks through labor violations committed by their employers, according to a UCLA study cited by the SEIU. Wage theft could include workers not getting paid overtime, getting misclassified as independent contractors, and getting paid lower than the minimum wage.

Among measures to protect employees against wage theft city leaders are considering is creating a city enforcement bureau.

The Van Nuys hearing was the third of four being held around the city. A final  meeting will be held in West Los Angeles scheduled for April 2, at 6 p.m., at the Museum of Tolerance, located at 9786 W. Pico Blvd.