Do We Need A Local Minimum Wage?


Photo: Reuters

Last week the Santa Cruz City Council commissioned a study on how a local minimum wage would impact our economy. Two days later, UCSC Professor Steve McKay led a presentation at the Museum of Art and History detailing the results of his study on low wage workers in Santa Cruz County. Taken together, these two events constitute the beginning of a community wide discussion about whether or not Santa Cruz should have a separate minimum wage from the state.

The California State Minimum wage is currently $9.00/hour, and is scheduled to increase to $10.00/hour come 2016, a 25 percent increase in just 18 months. The federal minimum wage is currently $7.25/hour.

The Santa Cruz study comes in the wake of a larger, national discussion about raising the minimum wage, a topic that has gained traction in recent months as multiple groups have begun protesting at various fast food chains, and even Walmart. These workers, many of whom have been organized by the Fight for $15, have led protests in almost every state, and have started organizing for local governments to adopt higher minimum wages as well. Many cities with higher costs of living relative to the rest of country have already adopted higher minimum wages, but a second wave of cities, including the likes of Seattle, Portland, and Berkeley, have recently gone even further.

During the UCSC event, Professor Steve McKay gave a summary overview of his study, which builds off 1600 survey responses and long form interviews of low wage workers, and a photo documentation project. The full results of the study can be viewed online at

The reception for "Working for Dignity", the release of a study on low wage workers by Steve McKay, at the Museum of Art and History

The reception for “Working for Dignity”, the release of a study on low wage workers by Steve McKay, at the Museum of Art and History

What is a low wage worker? Professor McKay defines a low wage worker as someone who earns an hourly wage whose total annual income is below the poverty line. Common low wage jobs in Santa Cruz include food preparation, field work, retail, and cleaning.

Professor McKay kept his remarks short during the event, preferring instead to let his student researchers reflect on their experiences and the merits of the study. Many of these students grew up in low wage households, and they talked about their own personal struggles growing up, experiences that were largely corroborated by the data they collected. The median wage of those who were interviewed was $10.00/hour, far below the County median wage of $17.81/hour. Of those surveyed, 62 percent were the chief wage earners for their household. 62 percent answered that they have been forced to go to work sick, and 22 percent have been injured while working. The event concluded with presentations from local unions and activist, with the implication being that Santa Cruz could and should be doing more to alleviate the struggles of low wage workers.

The tone at the Santa Cruz City Council meeting from two days prior was much less enthusiastic, however, as many local business and restaurant owners expressed their concern about a local minimum wage. Many said they were still feeling the effects of the two most recent increases in the state minimum wage, which, when fully adopted, will add on $2.00 to the cost of every working hour. When operating on small margins, like most restaurants, retail stores, and farms do, labor cost increases can be devastating. A few even said they would likely have to reduce the number of people that they employ if the minimum wage were to increase further. It’s because of these potential impacts that the City Council has decided to study the issue further, in anticipation of increasing pressure from local organizations looking to increase the minimum wage

What do you think? Should Santa Cruz adopt a higher local minimum wage? If so, what should it be? Is there a way to adopt a higher minimum wage without negatively impacting local businesses? Are there compromises to be had, such as including restaurant worker tips into reported wages? Vote and comment below.

Adopt a Local Minimum Wage in Santa Cruz

Should the City of Santa Cruz Adopt a higher local minimum wage than the state? The State minimum wage will be $10.00/hour starting in 2016.

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