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California Boosts Minimum Wage for Health Care and Fast-Food Workers

Soumya Karlamangla

Oct 30, 2023

Sector-specific pay bumps are a new twist in a state that already has one of the highest hourly minimum wages in the nation.

For thousands of Californians, wages are going up.

Gov. Gavin Newsom recently approved two major pay bumps: One new law, signed this month, will raise the minimum wage for all health care workers in the state to $25 an hour by 2028. The other law increases minimum hourly pay for fast-food workers to $20 an hour, starting in April.

California’s current overall minimum wage, at $15.50, already exceeds most other states (Washington State’s and the District of Columbia’s are higher) and will increase to $16 on Jan. 1. Californians will vote in November 2024 on whether to push it up even more, to $18 an hour.

The bills Newsom just signed add a new twist; they’re California’s first statewide minimums for specific economic sectors, according to Enrique Lopezlira, a labor economist at the U.C. Berkeley Labor Center.

Lopezlira said that the two new laws were a testament to the growing power and popularity of organized labor nationwide. Public support for unions among Americans hasn’t been this high in Gallup polls since the 1960s. In California, that has been evident through emerging unionization efforts as well as the enormous number of strikes we’ve seen statewide, including by Kaiser Permanente employees, dockworkers and Hollywood writers and actors.

“The pandemic just really highlighted for many workers how precarious their work is,” Lopezlira told me. “Workers at all levels of the wage distribution and all levels of the industry and occupation distribution are realizing that they want better working conditions.”

Lopezlira added: “A lot of these workers were deemed essential and then treated as sort of disposable by employers, so that’s also fueling some of these efforts.”

Health care workers in particular have faced tough conditions in recent years, and many are experiencing burnout while struggling to survive on low wages, Lopezlira said. He cowrote a paper that found that nearly half of the low-wage health care workers who would benefit from the new minimum wage increase were relying on safety-net programs like Medi-Cal and food stamps.

The industry-specific wage increases are part of a broader trend of piecemeal pay boosts for workers across the U.S. in recent years.

Frustrated that the federal minimum wage has been stuck at $7.25 an hour since 2009, city and county leaders have increasingly been passing their own wage ordinances. Before 2012, only five cities or counties in the nation had their own minimum wage laws; these days, 56 cities and counties do, according to data from the U.C. Berkeley Labor Center.

A majority of those municipalities are in California, probably because the high cost of living in some parts of the state, particularly along the coast, makes it difficult to make ends meet, Lopezlira told me.

The California city with the highest minimum wage is West Hollywood, at $19.08 an hour. Emeryville, Mountain View, Berkeley and San Francisco, which are all at roughly $18 an hour, round out the top five.

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