The Foster City Council will soon vote on a minimum wage ordinance increase above state requirements to help low-wage workers, but it faces potential failure due to opposition from Councilmember Jon Froomin over concern of staff priorities and the ordinance’s practicality.
“There’s only one reason for an ordinance like this, and it’s a political statement for our community with no real need. If everybody is already paying this wage, there is no point in having an ordinance,” Froomin said.
The City Council voted 2-1 Oct. 18 to direct staff to bring back an ordinance Nov. 1 that increases the minimum wage to $15.50 an hour, beginning in 2022 and $16 an hour in 2023 and would increase annually using the regional consumer price index. Vice Mayor Richa Awasthi and Councilmember Sam Hindi voted yes, while Froomin voted no.
City Attorney Benjamin Stock noted the ordinance requires a majority of the entire body to approve it, meaning at least three people. There were only three members available for discussion on the topic Monday. Mayor Sanjay Gehani and Councilmember Patrick Sullivan recused themselves. Both did so because they owned small businesses in Foster City, and it was considered a conflict of interest. Hindi also previously recused himself but participated because the recusals only left two councilmembers for the topic, forcing the council to exercise the rule of necessity. The rule allows for a blind drawing of names of councilmembers with a conflict who recused themselves to ensure a quorum to participate fully. A unanimous vote would be needed Nov. 1 for approval with only three members available, currently in doubt after Froomin voted against bringing an ordinance back Monday.
Froomin said he was worried about the issue being top of the city’s priority list instead of finding a new city manager. He said the council made it clear at the last council meeting that it should not engage in ordinances with a state law already in effect, referencing the council rejecting campaign finance reform discussions he put forth. He made a motion to table minimum wage discussions indefinitely based on staff priority and state law already existing, but it did not receive a second. Froomin also said most local employers are paying more than $16 an hour to hire workers. He called the ordinance unnecessary and said it would serve very little if any purpose and would not change the lifestyle of workers. A city survey of small businesses in Foster City found most businesses pay more than $16 an hour and as much as $17 to $20 an hour for entry-level jobs.
“There just does not seem to be a purpose behind this, and if staff time is a concern for other items coming on our agenda, staff time ought to be a consideration on this item, and it ought not to move forward,” Froomin said.
Hindi responded to Froomin’s issue of staff time by noting it was not a new item and had been on the staff workflow since 2019, unlike the political campaign donation limits issue. He also took exception to the idea it was a political statement.
“I think it’s important. I think people are underpaid, and they deserve at least $16 an hour,” Hindi said.
Vice Mayor Richa Awasthi supported a minimum wage increase and said the council needed to consider all the stakeholders that would be affected by the council’s decision, including workers, employees, consumers and staff. She also said it was not a political statement and could help workers.
“I think that if a city has the power to protect their most vulnerable, they should do that. I don’t agree there would not be any benefit to anyone in the community if we go in this direction,” Awasthi said.
The minimum wage in California will become $15 an hour starting Jan. 1, 2022, for businesses with 26 employees or more. Belmont, Burlingame, San Carlos, Redwood City and San Mateo have passed ordinances that speed up the timeline for minimum wage increases. The Foster City Council in May directed staff to examine a minimum wage ordinance. Outreach research showed businesses were supportive of a minimum wage ordinance as long as the city aligned with other cities in San Mateo County and had phased implementation to acclimate. The city also noted costs to adjust hourly wages for city employees would require a budget change approved by the council.
As of 2020, there were 789 business licenses with fixed places of business. Most small businesses provide professional or technical service, personal services, hospitality and restaurants, day care, home maintenance and health care. Hindi noted a National Low Income Housing Coalition study found a Bay Area renter must make $45 and $68 an hour to afford an apartment and have enough money for other living expenses.
“It’s definitely not a livable wage. Whatever we do falls way short for any individual or even for a couple to live on $16 an hour in this environment in this region,” Hindi said.
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