Juan Salcedo spends more than third of his life at Jack in the Box or Wal-Mart. Thirty hours a week goes to the fast-food franchise, where he makes a minimum wage of $10.30 an hour, and another 30 hours is spent working the night shift at America’s biggest department store chain, where he takes in $11.50 per hour. “It’s not because I like working two jobs,” he says.
With these earnings, Salcedo, 60, can’t afford an apartment, so he rents a garage behind a house in San Jose, where he lives with his disabled sister. “There’s a lot of weight on my back,” he says, adding that he can’t afford the proper medicine to treat his diabetes.
Like many living on the fringes of Silicon Valley, where housing costs have ballooned by as much as 54 percent in the last five years, Salcedo remains jammed in working-class poverty. He desperately needs a pay bump, he says, which is why he and 40,000 other minimum wage workers are holding out hope for a new regional plan to boost Silicon Valley’s minimum wage to $15 an hour.
The proposed pay hike would cover cities from Palo Alto to Gilroy and give Salcedo an extra $35 per day, which isn’t much, but enough that he could find better housing, save for a new car and doctor’s appointments, and afford a healthier diet. “With $15 an hour, I would not feel like I’m drowning,” Salcedo says. “I could probably afford a much better life. I could have my own apartment and not be stuck in a garage.”
San Jose Mayor Sam Liccardo announced the plan in September, and so far workers, nonprofit leaders and the business community have praised it. But one point in the plan has generated anxiety that a segment of minimum wage workers will be left behind.
In his Aug. 13 memo calling on San Jose to study the economic impact of a $15 pay floor, Liccardo also requested an assessment of “a lower ‘training wage’ for youth under the age of 18,” as well as exemptions for employers that hire “hard-to-employ” categories that include people who are homeless, on parole and emancipated foster youth.
Scott Myers-Lipton, a San Jose State University professor and lead organizer for San Jose’s successful 2012 minimum wage effort, said he’s troubled by the discussion of exemptions.
“Why penalize those marginalized groups?” he says. “Why have a sub-minimum wage?
“This is like a Round Two battle of the minimum wage in San Jose. Let’s not go backwards. The people of San Jose voted 60 percent not to have exemptions [in 2012]. So why are we considering it now, when it didn’t have the negative impact people said it was going to have in the first place?”
Liccardo was one of those people who opposed the 2012 ballot initiative to raise the minimum wage from $8 to $10, in part because it didn’t take a regional approach. “We were afforded the opportunity to say yes or no, take it or leave it,” Liccardo says. “That’s not a very good place for a policymaker to be in.” He defends the study of an exemption provision by suggesting a flat minimum could keep people out of the workforce.
“By increasing the minimum wage by 50 percent,” Liccardo poses, “are you simply precluding them from getting their foot in the door?”
Sparky Harlan, CEO of the Bill Wilson Center, which provides services to families and youth in Santa Clara County, says her group also has “concerns” about the exemptions, particularly those that would affect teen workers.
“A lot of these kids are breadwinners for their families,” Harlan says. “They may be 17 years of age, but their money is used to pay rent for their family’s housing, so to put them at a lower wage doesn’t make sense.”
And then there’s a question of why foster youth should be penalized in pay for situations beyond their control.
“It’s definitely not the old picture where the kid went to work to earn some extra money to go to the movies on the weekend,” Harlan adds.
Chris Richardson, Silicon Valley regional director of Downtown Streets Team, which prepares and places homeless people in jobs, argues that the rationale for exemptions doesn’t fit reality. When San Jose’s minimum wage jumped to $10 per hour, it didn’t become harder to find employment for the homeless—instead, job placement increased.
“In San Jose we’ve been placing more and more people in employment every year despite the minimum wage,” Richardson says.
As for parolees, Richardson points out, there are already financial incentives for employers—a $2,500 tax credit.
Exemptions could even cause problems for small businesses, according to Scott Knies, executive director of the San Jose Downtown Association. “It’s primarily small business owners that have to enact a lot of these rules,” he says, “and if it becomes too burdensome or complicated, it really comes back on the employer’s shoulders.”
There are, however, those who support a conversation about exemptions. John Hogan, CEO of the nonprofit Teen Force, says that exemptions could work in specific situations. In the context of training, Hogan suggests exemptions could help youth avoid being priced out of the labor market.
“There needs to be a time limit on it,” he says, “and the people in those programs need to be getting additional benefits from the program besides the wage—specific skills training, transportation support, child care, housing.”
Hogan acknowledges that he’s been wrong on the minimum wage in the past. In 2012, he opposed Measure D because it lacked a regional approach. “I will say that I was wrong, because when San Jose moved, it actually caused all these other cities to move,” he says. “Even though it’s created some administrative hassle, the benefits have outweighed all that.”
While the exemptions are still up for debate, the regional approach itself has been commended as a good economic and political strategy for Mayor Liccardo. While Bay Area cities such as San Francisco, Berkeley, Oakland and Emeryville have all increased wages independently in the past year, Liccardo convinced the mayors of Campbell, Cupertino, Gilroy, Milpitas, Monte Sereno, Morgan Hill, Palo Alto and Santa Clara to support the proposal.
“Most of our residents don’t pay a lot of attention to where the city limits are, and to ensure that there’s equity for workers and predictability for employers, it makes sense for us to raise the wage regionally rather than continue this pattern of patchwork labor regulations,” Liccardo says.
San Jose State’s Myers-Lipton agrees with the regional approach, but he firmly believes the expansion should be for everyone. “Let’s bring more people into having a better standard of living,” he says. “I’m supportive of the regional approach, but let’s lift up everybody and not have wages for various groups.”
Salcedo knows he and many others could be just an illness or injury away from finding themselves homeless, and potentially in an exempted class, which is why he agrees that a minimum wage should not only be regional, but all-inclusive.
“I’m 60 years old and I’m working 60 hours a week just to make ends meet,” he says. “If it’s possible, I would want the minimum wage raise to $15 today, right now. It’s what I need, and what everyone in the state of California needs—not just me.”