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Businesses, Workers Confused By LA County's Minimum Wage Hike

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

Both the city and county of Los Angeles have approved a minimum wage of $15 an hour to be phased in over the next few years. But the way borders work in LA County, how much you make could come down to what block you're working on. Ben Bergman of member station KPCC reports.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Red light - one, two and three.

BEN BERGMAN, BYLINE: On a recent afternoon, kids were playing Red Light, Green Light at a roller-skating rink in Glendale, Calif., the third largest city in LA County. When you step outside next to the ticket window, you look right across the street to the city of LA. Owner Dominic Cangelosi says he watched with great interest when LA passed a $15 minimum wage.

DOMINIC CANGELOSI: And I thought, oh, my goodness, I'm right on the city line.

BERGMAN: You're lucky you're on this side of the street.

CANGELOSI: Well, yes. Right now, yes.

BERGMAN: Eighty percent of Cangelosi's employees make the state minimum wage of $9 an hour - though, as he points out, they do get to skate for free. But he doesn't see having to pay a lower minimum wage as an advantage because he expects workers to start asking for more money or quit.

CANGELOSI: It's just that we're going to lose good people. They're going to go cross over into the Los Angeles area and get a bigger wage. I'll have to either raise my wages or - I don't know what to do.

BERGMAN: Cangelosi thinks it would be easier if his city just adopted a $15 minimum wage. But Glendale's Republican mayor, Ara Najarian, isn't ready to do that yet, despite pleas from LA's Democratic mayor.

ARA NAJARIAN: I have not heard from Mayor Garcetti, but I'm expecting the phone to ring.

BERGMAN: If it does, Najarian will politely rebuff Garcetti's call for neighboring cities to follow LA's lead. Najarian will tell Garcetti Los Angeles can be the guinea pig.

NAJARIAN: I'm glad that you did it first. We really owe it to all of ourselves to see how it works out.

BERGMAN: Najarian can ignore Garcetti because LA, as big as it is, is just one of 88 cities in LA County. And the county minimum wage only affects the 10 percent of the population living in unincorporated areas. Even if you add to that the 40 percent of the population living in the city of LA, still, half the people here won't be covered by the $15 wage. LA's political structure is unique among big cities, says Ralph Sonenshein, head of the "Pat" Brown Institute for Public Affairs.

RALPH SONENSHEIN: New York City, for example, is made up of five counties. San Francisco is a city that is also a county. But in Los Angeles, this is how it's done.

BERGMAN: Minimum wage earners and employers are now at the mercy of LA's other 87 cities, each of which have their own unique politics. Kevin McKeown is a mayor of a city so liberal, "60 Minutes" once called it the People's Republic of Santa Monica.

KEVIN MCKEOWN: Frankly, I think Los Angeles moved faster than we thought. They certainly spurred us to move more quickly.

BERGMAN: Santa Monica plans to vote on a new minimum wage next month, which could be higher than $15. For Jose Luis, that raise can't come fast enough.

JOSE LUIS: It's a big difference in my life because if I can make more money, I can get a better place, better food.

BERGMAN: He says it's hard supporting his two kids on the state minimum wage. Luis lives in LA. He's tried again and again to find work in the city, but so far, no luck.

LUIS: At this time, it's not possible to get a job. Most jobs are already taken.

BERGMAN: So he drives to affluent Santa Monica, where there's a stronger demand for busboys like him. Minimum wage commuters like Luis are common, says Rusty Hicks, the union organizer who led LA's $15 wage campaign.

RUSTY HICKS: A number of residents live in one city and work in the other, and vice versa. In order to cover all of the workers in LA County, you've got to go to the other 80-plus cities.

BERGMAN: Which Hicks is doing now. But his real goal is to have every worker in California making at least $15 an hour. Organizers have started gathering signatures for a statewide ballot initiative that would do just that. For NPR News, I'm Ben Bergman in Los Angeles. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.