California plans nation's first statewide $15 minimum wage

Last Updated Mar 28, 2016 4:52 PM EDT

Calling it a matter of "economic justice," California Governor Jerry Brown on Monday said a landmark deal had been reached to hike California's minimum wage to $15 an hour by 2022, the nation's first such statewide move.

At a news conference in Sacramento, state lawmakers, labor leaders and Brown detailed the agreement, which includes a series of yearly minimum wage hikes starting in 2017, to reach $15 by 2022, with an additional one year phase-in for small businesses with less than 26 employees.

The deal, which must be approved by legislators, will boost the pay of the more than 6.5 million Californians paid less than $15. That represents 43 percent of workers in the state, according to labor activists.

The increase to $15 would give California the highest statewide wage in the nation, although efforts in other states could change the ranking by the time the level is reached in 2022.

"There is a principle called the living family wage -- you can't expect someone to work if the wages for that work can't support a family," Brown told the news conference. "Everyone talks family values. We're not even at that with this," he added of the notion that $15 an hour could support a family.

The accord was reached after lawmakers were confronted with two union-sponsored initiatives that would have hiked the state's minimum wage to $15 at a more rapid pace, with one recently qualifying for the Nov. 8 statewide ballot and a number of polls showing California voters would approve such a hike.

The California Chamber of Commerce argued against the ballot initiative, saying in a statement: "[S]mall businesses will be required to pay even more when they are making less. This is an unsustainable model that is bad for business and will hurt the very employees this wage increase seeks to help."

Brown said the proposed legislation is more flexible than the ballot initiative scheduled for a vote in the fall, arguing that it is in business owners' interests to support the deal. "I think there will be very few business people who will oppose this, because it would be cutting their own throat."

The move to increase wages in the most populous state in the nation was applauded by the Service Employees International Union, which spearheads the Fight for $15 labor movement.

"For everyone from the fast-food cooks and cashiers who started the Fight for $15 three years ago to all the working men and women who will benefit from better wages they can sustain a family on, this is a huge victory," SEIU President Mary Kay Henry said in a statement. "It also shows the power that the 64 million people all over the country who make less than $15 will bring to the ballot box this November."

The minimum wage in California is $10 a hour, making the state, along with Massachusetts, among the highest in the country. Only Washington, D.C., at $10.50 an hour, offers a higher wage.

"Today, more than 6 million Californians secured life-changing raises that will lift our families out of poverty," Guadalupe Salazar, a McDonald's worker in Oakland and member of the National Organizing Committee of the Fight for $15, said in a statement. "And more victories are on the way across the country."

A total of nine U.S. cities and counties, including Los Angeles, San Francisco and Seattle, have approved $15 minimum wages. New York has approved a $15 minimum wage for fast-food workers, and Massachusetts has done the same for Medicaid-funded home care workers, according to the National Employment Law Project.

In addition to New York, in Washington, D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser recently announced plans to push for a $15 minimum wage, and a ballot initiative for a $15 minimum wage has also been proposed for the November 2016 election. Lawmakers in New Jersey have said they plan to get a $15 minimum wage on the 2017 election ballot to bypass an anticipated veto by Gov. Chris Christie.

While a slew of states, cities and towns across the country have hiked the local base pay on their own, other states are doing the opposite, with Alabama a recent example of a state passing a law prohibiting cities and towns from changing workers' pay and benefits on their own.