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In search of higher wages, East Bay workers brave longer commutes

on September 20, 2016

Most major cities in the East Bay have raised their minimum wage in recent years, and more increases are on the way.  With the minimums varying from one place to the next, some workers say they are starting to chase pay increases by enduring longer commutes.

The minimum wage in Richmond rose to $11.52 an hour in January. Just south of Richmond, in El Cerrito, the minimum jumped above Richmond’s by 8 cents an hour in July. At the same time, in nearby Emeryville, the minimum rose to $13 an hour in July, and it’s up to $14.82 an hour at larger Emeryville employers.

These differences, especially the larger gaps exceeding $1 or so an hour, are affecting people’s choices—putting more low-wage workers on the road or on public transit. Economists said this underscores how complicated the response may be when a particular location tries to legislate higher pay in a dense urban region.

San Jose State University sociology professor Scott Myers-Lipton, who studies the minimum wage and its impact on poverty, said communities need to coordinate better to avoid unintended consequences. A city that increases its minimum, but which fails to keep pace with a neighboring city, runs a risk.

“Something for city officials to consider is the possible loss of workers due to a higher wage somewhere else,” he said.

Luis Chavez, a student at UC Berkeley living in Richmond, makes the commute to a part-time job in an Emeryville clothing store. It’s cheaper to live in Richmond, he said, but the pay is better 10 miles down Interstate 80.

He figures the difference of a little more than $1 an hour is enough to pay for his books, and more than compensates for the increased travel time. He also made a point of buying a fuel-efficient hybrid car.

“I probably wouldn’t make the commute if I had to use public transportation, but my car gets good mileage so it’s not that bad,” Chavez said.

The gap between Emeryville and Richmond isn’t the only example of a potentially significant boundary effect among minimum wage workers in the East Bay.

Berkeley had one of the lowest minimums in the region until it recently raised the floor. Starting in October, the Berkeley minimum wage will increase to $12.53 an hour, up from $11. But even the higher number will be lower than the minimum in neighboring Oakland, now at $12.55 an hour.

Emeryville—at least until some other place decides to take action—remains the highest around the East Bay.

Myers-Lipton has done extensive analysis of the impact of higher minimum wages in San Jose and the South Bay. He points to an example of a worker at a Taco Bell in Gilroy moving to a San Jose location to take advantage of a difference in the minimums the same business would have to pay.

“People would much rather drive that extra 20 miles in order to receive the higher wage,” he said.

In the East Bay, it is a much shorter drive to go from Richmond to Emeryville for a $1.48 difference per hour. By 2018, after further increases are phased in, the pay difference will be $2 an hour.

In some areas, it’s possible to get a higher wage merely by walking a city block. For instance, a portion of Richmond and El Cerrito are separated along San Pablo Avenue. The difference in the minimum wages, however, is not that significant: $11.52 an hour in Richmond, vs. $11.60 in El Cerrito. Further complicating things, next year Richmond is on track to pass El Cerrito, because Richmond has approved raising its minimum to $12.30 an hour while El Cerrito will raise it to $12.25 an hour.

But a worker in El Cerrito might consider just waiting a while before changing jobs: In 2018, El Cerrito once again will pass Richmond, because El Cerrito has approved an increase to $13.60 an hour as of January 2018.

Graphic by Pablo De La Hoya.


By then, however, Emeryville will be at $15 an hour, as will Berkeley.

Richard Quevedo, who works at Copy Center in El Cerrito, said a few cents difference isn’t enough to get his attention. Quevedo recently moved to Richmond from Marin County, he said, to take advantage of both the lower living costs and higher pay in the East Bay. At the time he moved, the minimum in Marin was significantly less than other cities in the region.

Quevedo’s district manager, Ivy Woodruff, added that the minimum wage should be higher across the board, especially in areas where rent is so high. “It would be almost impossible to live here on minimum wage alone and I live in Richmond,” she said.

Jasmine Knight, a manager at Forever 21 in Emeryville, commutes from West Oakland. Her commute costs about $4 a day, she estimated, but she figures the higher pay is enough to compensate. She makes more than the minimum, Knight said, but when the floor increases, higher-paid workers also tend to get increases to keep pace.

Advocates of a higher minimum wage are pushing for a $15 an hour standard. Although the state has adopted a schedule that will push the statewide minimum to $15 an hour by 2022, individual cities may well surpass that floor through future legislation.

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