BERKELEY -- Accompanied by rhythms of the Liberation Brass Band, more than 100 advocates of increasing the city's minimum wage marched Wednesday from the downtown BART station to a Labor Commission meeting at the North Berkeley Senior Center, blocking traffic when they stopped to chant for better wages outside the McDonald's at Shattuck and University avenues.
Events focusing on raising national, state and local minimum wages were held July 24 in some 30 cities across the country.
In Berkeley, the focus was to speak before the Labor Commission, tasked by the City Council to write an ordinance setting a local minimum wage at $10.55 per hour, up from the state minimum of $8 per hour.
But, while agreeing with the concept of a minimum wage hike, some came to the meeting to tell commissioners that raising the minimum wage across-the-board is not the way to go. A half-dozen members of the Berkeley Restaurant Alliance called for the exclusion of tipped workers.
Eric Fenster, co-owner of Gather Restaurant, said the earnings of his tipped employees are two to three times those of workers who don't get tips. "That disparity keeps on growing," he said, "and this will only further alienate people who are making less."
He explained that every dollar increase in a full-time employee salary costs $2,500 per year. "Forty employees -- we're looking at $100,000," he said.
Todd Kniess, owner of Bistro Liaison, whose servers also earn $25 to $30 an hour with tips, said if he increases the base wage of servers to $10.55, he won't have funds for raises for dishwashers, bussers and cooks, who already earn more than minimum wage.
"There isn't anyone in our restaurant that makes minimum wage, other than servers," he said.
Most of the standing-room-only crowd argued for an across-the-board minimum wage hike.
They contended that servers in only a limited number of upscale restaurants earn more than $20 per hour in tips, that many restaurants do not provide health care benefits and that most servers don't work full time. McDonald's worker Michael Maxry testified that he had to move back home with his parents; Jack-in-the-Box worker Jesus Renada works two jobs; a Kentucky Fried Chicken worker said she's on food stamps.
Cassandra Christmas, who once worked minimum wage jobs, said she knows what it's like to choose which bills to pay. She pointed out that the proposed minimum wage increase brings wages to only around $1,700 per month.
"Raising the minimum wage to $10.55 is not enough, but it will be a step in the right direction," she said.
The average rent for a one-bedroom apartment in Berkeley is $1,325, according to the Rent Stabilization Board. And it takes $27,456 per year to meet the basic needs of an Alameda County resident, according to a May 2013 Alameda County Health Department report.
San Francisco's minimum wage, effective Jan. 1, 2013 is at $10.55, the highest in the country. San Jose's voter-approved $10 minimum wage kicked in last March.
The Berkeley Chamber of Commerce has yet to weigh in on the question.
Chamber CEO Polly Armstrong said concerns go beyond tipped workers. She talked about a travel agency where young people work for minimum wage to learn the complex business. "If they had to raise it to $10.50 an hour, they say they wouldn't be able to bring these people in and ultimately the travel agency would close," she said.
Armstrong also expressed concern for new businesses. "There's no business that can start with wages at that level," she said.
With so much anecdotal testimony, commissioners, in discussion after the public spoke, said they need more facts about Berkeley's minimum wage earners and the consequences of raising wages.
A subcommittee will work with city staff to collect data and bring it to the next full commission meeting, tentatively set for Aug. 20.