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Calif. voters to vote yea or nay on $15 wage

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California restaurants will be facing an initiative on the November ballot to raise the statewide minimum wage to $15 an hour, though the timing of the stepped increase is still uncertain because of a split in supporters’ ranks. 

Earlier this week, a coalition called Lift Up America presented California’s secretary of state with a petition signed by enough residents to secure a place on the ballot for the group’s wage proposal. If approved, it would raise the minimum legal wage, currently at $10 an hour, by $1 per year starting in 2017 for the next five years. After 2021, the pay floor would rise or fall in accordance with the cost of living.

The measure is backed by Service Employees International Union United Healthcare Workers.

Another SEIU faction, a broader-based coalition of service employees, is still collecting signatures to put its initiative on the ballot. That measure would raise the minimum wage for large employers to $15 by 2020, with smaller businesses getting another year to reach the threshold. It would also require six paid sick days per year for every employee.

If that second proposal draws enough signatures, SEIU leadership is likely to throw its support behind one of the measures and yank the other off the ballot. At this stage, the initiatives can no longer be combined under state regulations.

If approved, either proposal would likely be a severe blow to the state’s restaurants. In addition to an outright increase in costs, restaurants would almost certainly see a widening of the gap between front-of-the-house and back-of-the-house pay. California does not have a tip credit, meaning waiters and waitresses collect the full minimum wage from their employers and get to keep whatever they’re tipped. Serving jobs are so much more lucrative that few hourly prospects want to take lower-paying kitchen positions. 

Ballot initiatives, a relatively new tactic for raising a state or local jurisdiction’s minimum wage, have been difficult for the business community to thwart. California Governor Jerry Brown has questioned the economic viability of a $15 minimum wage, but his signature would not be required to turn the initiatives into law.

California is the largest restaurant market in the nation.

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