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Citizens Disagree About Raising Minimum Wage In South L.A.

Vanessa Okoth-Obbo |
September 3, 2014 | 11:07 p.m. PDT

Staff Reporter

Mayor Eric Garcetti gives a speech in MLK Jr. Park (Vanessa Okoth-Obbo/Neon Tommy)
Mayor Eric Garcetti gives a speech in MLK Jr. Park (Vanessa Okoth-Obbo/Neon Tommy)
At the close of a long weekend when most would be forgiven for having work far from the brain, a big crowd gathered in Martin Luther King Jr. Park to discuss just that. This Labor Day, Mayor Eric Garcetti announced his office’s proposal to raise the minimum wage in Los Angeles from $9 to $13.25 over the next three years. 

The mood at the event was celebratory - and with good reason. According to an article in the LA Times, an estimated 567,000 workers across the city stand to benefit from an increase in wages.

“I, as mayor believe that those who work for L.A. should make sure that L.A. works for them,” Garcetti said during his address. Yet in parts of South Los Angeles, not too far from where the mayor’s press conference took place, such statements do not always curry favor.

District 9 spans the central section of South L.A. It is diverse in its racial makeup as well as in its attractions. L.A. Live, the Staples Center, the California Science Center and the University of Southern California can all be found within its borders. But the district also encompasses some of the poorest neighborhoods in Los Angeles.

Representing the “New Ninth” is Councilman Curren D. Price Jr., a strong supporter of Mayor Garcetti’s wage initiative. Councilman Price acknowledges that many residents in his area work in jobs with minimum pay and feels that they will be direct beneficiaries of the initiative. 

Councilman Curren D. Price Jr., far right (Vanessa Okoth-Obbo/Neon Tommy)
Councilman Curren D. Price Jr., far right (Vanessa Okoth-Obbo/Neon Tommy)

“I think it’s an exciting proposal, we know how important it is to raise citizens out of poverty. Increasing the minimum wage is one way to do that,” he said. “As people have more money in their paychecks, they’ll start buying more groceries, shoes, clothing for their kids. They’ll be able to fix up their homes. We think it will translate into lots of local development," he explained.

Allison Tom-Miura, Associate Professor in the Academic Connections Department at LA Trade Technical College, knows through interactions with her students that many people in the area are struggling to make ends meet.

Allison Tom-Miura, Associate Professor at LATTC (Vanessa Okoth-Obbo/Neon Tommy)
Allison Tom-Miura, Associate Professor at LATTC (Vanessa Okoth-Obbo/Neon Tommy)

“My initial reaction is that it’s a good thing,” Tom-Miura said. “I have a number of students that work two or three jobs to make ends meet and it makes it pretty much impossible for them to go to school, to advance themselves or to develop their skills. So raising the minimum wage is a good thing [for them.]”

But this optimism is tempered by an understanding of basic economics and what increased wages would mean for costs.

“It will probably have an immediate effect on the cost of business and [prices] for consumers. But that’s a worthwhile reason, rather than just having business owners increase costs for profit,” Tom-Miura said.

Although some present for the announcement joined the mayor in chanting “Raise the Wage L.A.,” others in the district are not so willing to chime in. Vivian Bowers, owner of Bowers And Sons Cleaners on South Central Avenue, feels that the move would cripple the economy rather than boost it. Bowers knows her neighborhood well - the family business has existed since the 1940s and has been in the same part of South LA since the late 50s.

“We don’t want anyone to be underpaid or, as our mayor has phrased it, to live in poverty. We want everyone to enjoy quality living and to have some disposable income. However as small business owners, we have to be able to do more than survive. We want to thrive,” Bowers said.

The notion of thriving versus surviving is an important one for Bowers, who has been running the business for the past 20 years.

Vivian Bowers, Owner of Bowers And Sons Cleaners (Vanessa Okoth-Obbo/Neon Tommy)
Vivian Bowers, Owner of Bowers And Sons Cleaners (Vanessa Okoth-Obbo/Neon Tommy)

“When you look at small businesses, which are the backbone of America, we have very small margins of profit. In Council District 9, most of the businesses are mom and pops shops or have up to 10 employees. We have little flexibility,” she continued.

Bowers feels that such a large and rapid increase in wages represents yet another burden that the government expects small business owners to shoulder on the heels of increased taxes and healthcare obligations for some. It would be yet another blow while many are just now beginning to emerge from the 2008 economic downturn. 

She has seen several businesses move to other areas in search of better conditions. The worry is that if the proposal goes through many will have to lay people off, curtail their hours of service or in some cases, close.

“We’ve built up a reputation and a client base. We’re comfortable. Our families and homes and other interests are here… We don’t want someone to put such a big burden on our shoulders that it forces us to move to other areas that are more business friendly,” Bowers explained.

Reach Staff Reporter Vanessa Okoth-Obbo here.



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