West Hollywood Minimum Wage, Highest in U.S., Irks Merchants

Josiah Citrin, the owner and chef of a Santa Monica restaurant with two Michelin stars, opened a new steakhouse a few months ago off the Sunset Strip. He is already concerned about whether the restaurant can survive.

The reason, Mr. Citrin said, is singular: a West Hollywood city mandate that workers be paid at least $19.08 an hour, the highest minimum wage in the country.

“It’s very challenging,” Mr. Citrin, 55, said of the new minimum wage, which took effect about two weeks before he opened his doors in July. “Really, it’s almost impossible to operate.”

His sentiment is widely shared among business owners in West Hollywood, a city of 35,000 known for restaurants, boutiques and progressive politics. In recent weeks, many owners have written to lawmakers, pleading for a moratorium on further increases to the minimum wage; another is scheduled for July, based on inflation. And last month, several marched to a local government building carrying signs that read, “My WeHo” and “R.I.P. Restaurants in West Hollywood.”

Their sense of duress arises partly from geography. The jaggedly shaped city is bordered by Beverly Hills to the west and Los Angeles to the north, south and east. Some streets begin in Los Angeles, slice through West Hollywood and end in Beverly Hills. You can be in three cities — barring, of course, traffic — in a matter of minutes.

And that means West Hollywood’s small businesses have competitors down the street with lower costs.

Beyond raising the minimum wage, the West Hollywood ordinance, which the City Council approved in 2021, requires that all full-time employees receive at least 96 hours a year of paid time off for sick leave, vacation or other personal necessities, as well as 80 hours that they can take off without pay.

The State of California’s hourly minimum wage is $15.50, the third highest in the nation, trailing only the District of Columbia at $17 and Washington State at $15.74. But just as each state’s minimum wage can supersede the federal minimum of $7.25 an hour, more than two dozen cities across California, including West Hollywood and several in the Bay Area, have higher minimum wages than the state, according to the Economic Policy Institute, a nonpartisan think tank.

In San Francisco, it’s $18.07; in Los Angeles, $16.78.

Chris Tilly, a professor at the University of California, Los Angeles, who studies labor markets and public policies that shape the workplace, said research had shown that gradual and moderate increases to the minimum wage had no significant impact on employment levels.

“The claim that minimum wage increases are job-killers is overblown,” Mr. Tilly said. But “there are possible downsides,” he added. “One is that economic theory tells us an overly large increase in the minimum is bound to deter businesses from hiring.”

Over the past year, workers in several California industries have seen significant pay raises due, in many instances, to wins by organized labor. Health care workers at Kaiser Permanente facilities secured a contract that includes a $25-an-hour minimum wage in the state. Fast food workers across the state will soon make a minimum wage of $20 per hour, and hotel workers have received significant pay bumps across Southern California.

Until recently, West Hollywood followed the state’s minimum wage increases, which have risen every year since 2017, often by a dollar at a time. But that changed with the new ordinance, which included a series of increases.

Genevieve Morrill, president of the West Hollywood Chamber of Commerce, said that while her group wanted workers to earn a living wage in an increasingly expensive part of the country, she felt that the ordinance had done more to hurt workers, who have lost hours or, in some cases, their jobs after places have shuttered.

Around the time the recent wage bump took effect, Ms. Morrill helped more than 50 local businesses, including Mr. Citrin’s restaurant, write a letter to the City Council outlining their concerns. They called for a moratorium on further minimum wage increases through 2025 or until the rate aligns with the Los Angeles rate. They also asked that the city roll back the mandated paid time-off policy.

West Hollywood, which was incorporated in 1984, was the first city in the nation to have a City Council with a majority of members who were openly gay. It has promoted itself as “a leader in many critical social movements,” including, among other things, advocacy for H.I.V. causes, affordable housing and women’s rights, according to a post on the city’s website.

When you walk along Santa Monica Boulevard, which cuts through the center of this city, a bustling energy fills the sidewalks. Several residents are catching up with phone calls while out walking their dogs, and others are grabbing a latte or strolling through an art gallery. People are doing calisthenics in a park. At night, the city’s vibrant bar and restaurant scene brings a buzz.

Mayor Sepi Shyne, who was sworn in this year, said businesses had long been a part of the fabric of the community.

“Our businesses are also the backbone of support for workers: Lifting workers with fair pay is part of securing economic justice and a brighter future for everyone,” said Ms. Shyne, who supports the minimum wage ordinance but said she was seriously listening to resistance from the business community.

Last month, the City Council, of which Ms. Shyne is a member, approved about $2.8 million in waivers, credits and marketing dollars to help the business community. The City Council, she said, has also directed staff members to get feedback from workers about the effect of paid time off.

A major supporter of the ordinance was UNITE HERE Local 11, which represents 30,000 workers at hotels and restaurants across Southern California.

Kurt Petersen, co-president of the local, said West Hollywood was setting a standard that should be replicated across California and the country. “It has raised living standards and given workers the security of paid time off,” he said.

Near the intersection of Santa Monica and La Cienega Boulevards, Paul Leonard plans to open a location for his pet grooming business, Collar & Comb. He has operated at other locations, a few blocks away in Los Angeles, since 2019. The most popular service, Mr. Leonard said, is a full-spectrum specialty groom for dogs under 20 pounds at $166.

In an interview, Mr. Leonard said he was not concerned about the minimum wage because he paid his groomers at least $23 an hour.

“Everything is going up, and so should wages,” he said.

Steve Lococo, who has been a part of the business community for decades, said small-business owners “have not at all been heard” over the last two years in West Hollywood. He has raised prices — an average haircut, previously $150, is now $195 — and his business, B2V Salon, which he co-owns with Alberto Borrelli, has cut back to five employees from nine. At the start of the new year, Mr. Lococo said, the salon will assess staffing again.

“There need to be modifications to this ordinance,” he said. “Lately, it’s just like, you feel as if you have no say as a business owner in how things are done in the city.”

Meanwhile, Mr. Citrin, who has run restaurants in the Los Angeles area for more than 25 years, said the staff at his West Hollywood restaurant, Charcoal Sunset, which specializes in prime cuts of meat, had fallen to 35 from around 50.

At high-end restaurants like his, Mr. Citrin noted, servers often make good money — sometimes more than $50 an hour when tips are included, he said. Most nights, his West Hollywood restaurant makes revenue comparable to what his Los Angeles and Santa Monica restaurants bring in, but his overhead costs are higher in West Hollywood. For now, he said, he is unsure of his future in the city.

He often wonders if it’s easier to simply focus on his restaurants elsewhere in the area.

“That’s something I need to answer in the coming months,” he said.

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