How will LA's new minimum wage ordinance affect immigrant workers?
Sylvia Quintanilla and Betty Fraser describe themselves as good friends. They’ve worked together for 10 years, cooking up gourmet comfort food for customers.
Quintanilla is an immigrant from El Salvador. Some days she helps out in the kitchen, but most of the time she waits tables. She earns the minimum wage of $9 an hour, plus tips.
Fraser is her boss. She and a business partner employ Sylvia and roughly three dozen others at their establishment, a small Hollywood restaurant and catering service called Grub.
“Our employees really are our family," said Betty one recent afternoon, as she and Sylvia prepared a large breakfast order in Grub's catering kitchen. "Most of our employees have been with us probably at least 10 years.”
When L.A. leaders began to embark on a plan to raise the city's minimum wage, the news trickled into the Grub kitchen. Quintanilla learned of it from Fraser.
“She has come to me and she has said, 'What do you think about it, have you heard about it, have you read about it?' " Quintanilla said. "And I was like yes, I have heard about it, but I thought it was for the big corporations.”
Fraser says that as a small business owner, she can’t afford to give all of her employees a raise because the restaurant's profit margin’s too slim.
“We love them," she said of her employees. "If we could pay them 15 an hour right now we would.”
So Fraser and her business partner have been contemplating alternatives, some that might hurt. One option, if things get really tight, could be switching to counter service – without a wait staff.
In a way, both Fraser and Quintanilla share the same worry: That they'll lose their jobs.
"They’re going to close their doors, you know?," Quintanilla said.
Supporters of the new wage ordinance say it will help the city’s lowest earners. Many of these are immigrants, working in industries like service and manufacturing. How they benefit could depend on what they do for a living, what their legal status is, and how well the new law is enforced.
Quintanilla's concern isn't much unlike that of some native-born workers who receive tips in addition to the minimum wage. She's a naturalized U.S. citizen who’s been here for decades, speaks fluent English, and works the front of the house. Sometimes she takes home almost three times the minimum counting tips, enough to support her family.
It's different for other immigrant workers. Not far away in Koreatown, Heriberto, who is working in the U.S. illegally, does food prep at an Asian fusion restaurant. He cleans the kitchen at another. Both jobs pay $9 an hour.
"The minimum isn't enough," Heriberto said. "I have two jobs because one is not enough. I don't have enough hours, or get paid enough."
Technically, he also gets tips – the kitchen staff at the fusion restaurant divides proceeds from a common tip jar. But he says at the end of day, he still takes home just $9 an hour, because management discounts the extra money from his paycheck. If the minimum rises, he says, at least he’ll get to take home more.
Another unauthorized worker, Pablo, operates a sewing machine in the garment district downtown. He makes below minimum wage, between $7.50 and $8 an hour.
Yet Pablo considers himself among the lucky ones – he at least earns a weekly salary. Many garment workers are paid per piece of clothing, at a rate that rarely adds up to minimum wage.
"To tell the truth, I don't think there's any hope for us," Pablo said. "Even if they were to raise the minimum to $20 an hour, they don't guarantee us anything. The minimum wage is $9 an hour, but there are people who earn $3 an hour."
Workers like Pablo and Heriberto are common in the minimum wage ranks. By some estimates, unauthorized immigrants make up close to one-tenth of California’s workforce.
Analysts are at odds over how much immigrant workers will benefit from the wage hike. Those in favor of it say it’ll help lift them out of poverty, regardless of immigration status. Kent Wong is with the UCLA Labor Center, which released a report backing the Los Angeles wage increaseearlier this year.
“When we do see a raise in the minimum wage, it does push the standards upwards, regardless of workers’ immigration status," Wong said. "What it means is that in these very low wage industries, where undocumented immigrants are concentrated, it will enhance their ability to get higher wages.”
But, he said, enforcement will be key. Wage theft is commonplace in the manufacturing and service industries that employ low-wage immigrants, with garment manufacturing at the top, according to the UCLA report. Many workers are too afraid to report being underpaid.
The city plans to open a labor standards office in hopes of keeping employers in check, and a California bill that would give officials more tools to go after employers who underpay is pending in the state legislature. But workers would still need to step forward.
Critics say different scenarios could play out, not all of them favorable to low-wage immigrant workers.
“You may very well find employers of these folks not paying them at whatever this new higher wage is – they might just decide not to do that, and they may not be helped at all," said Christopher Thornberg, a founder of Beacon Economics, which produced a report questioning the wage hike.
Thornberg said a few things could happen: Business owners could choose to move outside the city lines, to keep paying $9 an hour – so long as the county and state wage remains flat. Or they could stay in L.A. and chose higher–skilled employees for the higher wage they are paying, passing over unskilled entry-level workers.
Or, on the flip side, they could opt to hire more unauthorized workers, and pay them less than the the minimum wage, assuming those workers won't report wage theft.
Fraser, the restaurant owner, said this isn’t an option for her personally. But she expects it to happen in the restaurant industry.
“There are people who just need to stay in business, and they will try to figure out how to do it," she said.
The first phase of the wage hike - to $10.50 an hour – will take effect next summer.