The goal is clear and undisputed: enacting a minimum wage of $15 per hour.
But as Palo Alto officials prepare to plot on Monday night their route toward this destination, they will have to choose between two separate paths, each with its own advantages and drawbacks.
One path, which is supported by the council's Policy and Services Committee, would raise the minimum wage from the current level of $11 per hour to $12 in 2017, to $13.50 in 2018 and to $15 in 2019. The increases would be consistent with the recommendation from the Cities Association of Santa Clara County, which in June released a letter calling for a "common path" by various cities toward a higher minimum wage.
Sunnyvale Councilman Jim Griffith, president of the Cities Association, wrote in the letter that the group "encourages cities to take a regional approach to protect our most vulnerable residents and to work in concert toward a uniform solution that will best benefit Silicon Valley's employees and employers." The group of mayors and council members who co-signed the letter, includes San Jose Mayor Sam Liccardo and Palo Alto Vice Mayor Greg Scharff, who also sits on the council's Policy and Services Committee. Last month, Scharff and his committee colleagues voted 3-1 to adopt the schedule proposed by the Cities Association.
The second path would get Palo Alto to $15 faster, though the city would probably have fewer companions along the way. Under this proposal, which is being pursued by Mountain View and Sunnyvale, the city would go to $15 by July 1, 2018. If Palo Alto chooses to follow suit, the local minimum wage would move to $13 starting next year and then $15 on July 1, 2018, giving businesses 18 months to adjust to the higher rate.
The question of how fast to proceed is the only factor on which there's no clear consensus in Palo Alto, where the entire council supports a higher wage. In February 2015, councilmen Marc Berman, Pat Burt, Tom DuBois and Cory Wolbach co-wrote a memo that called for the city to explore a higher wage.
"Our lowest-wage workers perform valued services in Palo Alto and often have to work multiple jobs with long commutes to barely make ends meet," the memo stated. "A local minimum wage would be a modest step in supporting these workers who are vital to maintaining the services we value and that are essential to our local economy."
Some progress has already been achieved. Last year, the council passed an ordinance raising the local minimum wage to $11, effective Jan. 1 of this year. And while the Policy and Services Committee agreed on Aug. 16 that the city should continue to work toward a higher wage, there was some disagreement in the committee about the best route. While the committee voted to support the Cities Association plan, Berman indicated at the meeting that he would prefer the timeline being used by Mountain View and Sunnyvale.
In supporting the timeline from the Cities Association, committee members stressed the importance of working regionally. Having the minimum wage go up at the same time in various regional jurisdictions creates a "level playing field" for businesses in different cities, Scharff argued at the committee meeting.
"I want to make sure that we get in sync with the neighboring cities," Scharff said.
Councilwoman Liz Kniss also supported the Cities Association schedule and said she is in favor of "regionalism" when it comes to minimum wage. Berman argued that while different cities are committed to raising the minimum wage, there isn't a clear consensus on a timetable.
"There are two huge cities in the region that are moving at a different pace that signed on to this letter but are not moving at the letter's schedule," Berman said.
On other matters pertaining to the minimum-wage ordinance, the committee was in complete accord. All four members rejected an idea proposed by local restaurants to exclude tipped workers from the minimum-wage requirement. In making the case, several local restaurateurs told the committee that requiring businesses to pay a higher wage to their wait staff (whose actual wages, because of tips, often exceed $20 an hour), will keep them from raising compensation for cooks, dishwashers and other non-tipped workers. Because California law prohibits employers from pooling tips, the workers in the "back of the house" would be at a disadvantage when it comes to a higher wage.
Rob Fischer, whose downtown businesses include Reposada and Gravity, told the committee that restaurateurs are not looking to avoid the $15-an-hour requirement, but merely to have the ability to pay adequate wages to "people who work harder than anybody else in our restaurants."
"It's really important for us to be able to pay our people in the back of the house more money," Fischer said. "And we want them to have as good of a life as the people in front of our restaurants do. That's what we're asking for and nothing more."
But the committee, following the example of other cities that have explored this topic (including Los Angeles and Sacramento), agreed that exempting tipped workers would place the city at a risk of a lawsuit. While council members said they were sympathetic to the restaurant operators' concerns, they argued that this is an issue of state law and it would have to be addressed by Sacramento legislators.
"I really feel that we in the city here have our hands tied on this issue," Scharff said.
Berman agreed, saying, "We wouldn't be doing our duty as stewards of the city and its resources if we walked ourselves into a lawsuit where the odds were heavily stacked against us."