San Mateo Mayor Joe Goethals voted on Monday in favor of adopting a $15 per hour minimum wage. (Brendan Bartholomew/Special to S.F. Examiner)

San Mateo likely to adopt $15 per hour minimum wage

San Mateo is poised to become the first city in San Mateo County to adopt a $15 per hour minimum wage.

The City Council voted 3-2 Monday to move forward with a plan that would raise the minimum wage to $15, and will likely finalize its adoption of the ordinance in mid-July.

A recently enacted state law will raise California’s minimum wage to $15 in 2022, but San Mateo’s proposed ordinance would raise wages sooner. Under the plan, employers in the city would be required to pay at least $15 per hour starting Jan. 1, 2018.

Most nonprofit organizations and small businesses would receive a two-year deferment, however, and would not be required to meet the new minimum until 2020. Small businesses would be defined as any organization with less than 55 employees.

That last point was a bone of contention for Councilman Rick Bonilla and Deputy Mayor David Lim, both of whom said the small business exemption would enable too many employers to defer the pay increases until 2020.

“The ordinance is pretty useless with that condition,” Lim said.

Lim and Bonilla both voted against the ordinance in its current form, despite their support for a $15 minimum wage. Mayor Joe Goethals and council members Diane Papan and Maureen Freschet voted in favor of the measure.

The second reading and final vote on the ordinance had originally been scheduled for June 20, but because some council members will be out of town, the final vote will likely be held July 18, Goethals said.

Several representatives of San Mateo’s business community expressed varying degrees of opposition to the ordinance at Monday’s meeting, with some suggesting alternative plans.

Downtown San Mateo Association Executive Director Ann Fienman said a more gradual wage increase over several years for all employers, with no exemption for small businesses, would be “more equitable.”

But Robert Sanchez, owner of the Melting Pot fondue restaurant, said there was no way his business could sustain an across-the-board increase to $15 per hour for all employees.

Speaking with the San Francisco Examiner, Sanchez noted his servers, currently paid $10 per hour, are making decent money when their tips are factored in.

“Good servers, there’s no way they’re going to make any less than $30 per hour,” Sanchez said.

Sanchez said every $1 increase to the hourly wages he pays translates into an additional $50,000 in annual payroll costs, and he would likely be forced to close his business if a $15 minimum wage was implemented.

“If it goes up by $5 per hour, I’ll just walk away and hand them the keys,” Sanchez said.

Scott Hochberg, a workers’ rights attorney with Community Legal Services in East Palo Alto, said it’s vital a new minimum wage law is enforced, otherwise some businesses may deprive workers of the wages they’re owed.

Hochberg said low-income immigrants are particularly vulnerable to not receiving legal wages, partly because they don’t always know their rights.

“Wage theft is an endemic problem in immigrant communities,” Hochberg said.

San Mateo should devote resources to outreach efforts so workers will be aware of what the minimum wage is, and what recourse they have if their rights are violated, Hochberg said. The attorney also called for the city to designate a full-time staffer whose sole job would be investigating complaints about wage law violations.

Goethals, the mayor, said San Mateo would more likely rely on City Attorney Shawn Mason to respond to allegations of wage theft.

He added that the hours of debate on Monday shouldn’t create the impression the City Council lacks a consensus on the issue.

“I don’t want the 3-2 vote to take away from the unanimous support for raising the wage in San Mateo, which all council members share,” Goethals said.

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