California lawmakers approve hiking minimum wage to $15

By Sharon Bernstein

SACRAMENTO, Calif. (Reuters) - A plan to raise California's minimum wage to $15 an hour by 2022 passed both houses of the state legislature on Thursday, putting the state on track to become the first in the nation to commit to such a large pay hike for the working poor.

The measure, incorporating a deal Governor Jerry Brown reached with labor leaders and progressive Democrats in the Legislature, was approved in the state Senate Thursday afternoon after winning approval earlier in the day in the Assembly, and now goes to Brown for his signature.

"If you work full time, your family shouldn't live in poverty," Assembly Speaker Anthony Rendon, a Southern California Democrat, said in support of the bill to raise the state's minimum wage from its current level of $10 per hour.

Lawmakers from the state's poorer regions said the measure could harm small businesses that are barely hanging on amid double-digit unemployment, ultimately leading to job losses.

If enacted, the bill would put California, home to one of the world's biggest economies, among a growing number of U.S. states and cities that have moved in recent years to surpass the federal minimum wage, which has remained at $7.25 an hour since 2009. A proposal to raise the minimum wage in parts of New York state to $15 was announced Thursday by Governor Andrew Cuomo and legislative leaders.

The California measure would gradually raise the state's hourly minimum wage to $15 by 2022 for large businesses and by 2023 for smaller firms.

The measure would also head off two competing ballot initiatives lacking a provision to allow the governor to suspend increases in hard economic times, a deal breaker for Brown.

The proposal sped through the legislative process after the governor's office reached a deal last week with labor unions pushing a similar minimum wage hike in the form of two ballot initiatives.

With polls showing strong support for those measures at the ballot box, Brown emphasized that a version passed through the legislature would allow lawmakers to amend it if needed over time instead of going back to voters to request amendments in expensive and uncertain campaigns.

Moreover, the deal allows the state to opt out of minimum wage increases if the economy is doing poorly, a provision not in either of the union-backed ballot initiatives.

Even so, several moderate Democrats and most Republicans complained that it was being rushed through, and would disproportionately harm businesses in poorer parts of the state, where the cost of living is not high enough to warrant such a dramatic wage hike.

The deal reached in New York would raise wages in costly New York City to $15 in three years, but would stagger increases in other parts of the state, some to just $12.50 per hour unless further approval is granted. It still must pass the legislature, where negotiations on the details are ongoing.

(Reporting by Sharon Bernstein; Editing by Meredith Mazzilli and Andrew Hay)