California Is Increasing Its Minimum Wage To $15. Here’s What That Will Mean For Workers.

CREDIT: AP Photo/Nick Ut

Fast food protestors in Los Angeles in 2013

Holly Dias loves her job at Burger King. But it’s led to heartbreaking choices. Many months, the mother of a five-month-old son has had to choose between paying her bills or getting diapers for her baby, between buying a bus pass to get to work or buying formula. She even went two years without a cell phone, cutting off her connection to the world.

“Decisions I’ve had to make are decisions no parent should have to make,” she said.

She’s been doing her job since 2009 and says she loves it, particularly making the customers happy and watching children come into the restaurant. But her pay has been stuck at about $10 an hour. “I just don’t make enough to support me and my five-month-old,” she said.

That all may soon be about to change. A deal struck between lawmakers in Dias’s home state of California and labor unions would raise the minimum wage to $15 by 2022 for large companies and by 2023 for smaller ones, with gradual increases in the current $10 wage beginning next year until it gets to that higher level. Economists at the University of California, Berkeley estimate that will result in a raise for about 5.6 million workers in the state, most of whom live in or near poverty, and that they will see their annual income rise by about a quarter on average.

While Dias knows she won’t get $15 an hour right away, the steady increases will still mean a lot for her small family. “Because the minimum wage is not going to hit 15 right away, some of the struggles will still be there,” she said. But, she added, “Each year as the minimum wage increases, it’s going to be a little easier to better provide for the baby.”

“I wish it could jump straight to $15 an hour,” she said, “but I’d rather help the economy than hurt it.”

There’s a deep debate among economists as to what the impact of such a minimum wage level will be on businesses and employment, since the country hasn’t really seen something comparable. But the UC Berkeley economists estimate that employers will be able to absorb the gradual increase in compensation costs thanks to the savings from reduced employee turnover, increased productivity, and an average of less than 1 percent in price increases across a number of years. That should all result in a small impact on employment, they say, and there’s a good deal of evidence backing them up.

Elvis Delacruz is also looking forward to an increase in his pay at Burger King, which is currently $10 an hour. The 25-year-old still lives with his parents in San Diego and has to rely on them for help whenever he can’t quite make ends meet. With a higher wage, though, he said he can “rent my own apartment or house, be independent… enjoy life knowing that I will survive, knowing that I’m going to have something to eat the next day.”

He also wants to give back to his family, especially to his grandparents who live in Mexico. His grandmother recently had knee surgery, he recounted, and needed about $40 to help pay for pain killers. But he couldn’t even scrounge up that amount to get her what she needed.

Delacruz has been involved with the Fight for 15 movement since it started staging protests in California, even walking off the job in the first fast food strike in his state. “I knew sooner or later we were going to win,” he said. Still, when he learned about the news of the minimum wage increase deal, it was a lot to take in. “First I thought it was unbelievable… too good to be true,” he said. But he’s not letting himself get carried away yet: the deal still has to be passed officially by the state legislature and signed by Gov. Jerry Brown (D) before it can take effect. “I need to see Jerry Brown sign the law,” he said. “Then that’s a victory.”

Dias has also been part of Fight for 15, going on strike and fighting for higher pay to “stand up for my family and for my baby,” she said. She was similarly flabbergasted by the news. “When they told me that it was really happening, at first I didn’t believe it,” she said. “It’s crazy, it’s overwhelming, almost unexplainable. It’s been long, it’s been hard.” She takes particular pride knowing that her state will most likely be the first to mandate the $15 minimum wage she and her fellow fast food workers have been demanding.

Neither Dias nor Delacruz plans to stop making demands. “We’re still having to fight…to win a union,” Delacruz said. The Fight for 15 movement hasn’t just demanded more pay, but the right to form unions, which is often thwarted by the franchise model used throughout the industry.

Dias plans to keep advocating for workers outside of California. “The fight does not end here,” she said. “Until every low-wage worker is making $15 an hour, the fight will continue.”