To put it very simply, Muriel Morse is on the hot seat.
Morse, a 73-year-old resident of Altadena, is the swing vote on the state Industrial Welfare Commission, a little-known but powerful five-member body that will decide next month whether California will raise its minimum wage for the first time in seven years.
Two of the commission members--Michael Callahan and David Padilla, both retired union officials--have publicly stated that they favor an increase in the minimum wage to $5.01 an hour, a hike of almost 50% from the current $3.35.
Advocates of an increase believe that the other two commission members, James Rude, a Sacramento hospital administrator, and Lynnel Pollock, a Woodland farmer, either will vote against an increase or come out for one that is lower than proponents favor. Both voted against an increase in 1985, as did Morse.
But representatives of labor and community organizations pushing for a boost think Morse is more receptive to change.
A Phi Beta Kappa graduate of Stanford University, a Times Woman of the Year in 1961, a former general manager of the Los Angeles Personnel Department and now a visiting professor at USC, Morse, 73, is a deliberate woman who has not publicly committed herself.
"I don't think that would be appropriate," she said Thursday night.
Gov. George Deukmejian appointed her to the commission, which was created in 1913 during the progressive era with a mandate to establish minimum wages, maximum hours and standards for working conditions. The Legislature also has the power to raise the minimum wage, but bills aimed at doing so this year have stalled. The commission is expected to announce its decision at a meeting in San Francisco Sept. 11.
California law requires the Industrial Welfare Commission to review the minimum wage at least once every two years. The California commission may act independently of the federal government, which also is considering an increase.
California last raised its minimum wage on Jan. 1, 1981, in line with a federal increase.
Advocates of an increase note that a full-time worker earning the minimum wage makes less than $7,000, which is only 77% of the poverty level for a family of three and 60% of the poverty level for a family of four. They also say the purchasing power of the minimum wage has fallen 27% since the last increase in 1981.
Opponents of an increase assert that raising the minimum will result in greater unemployment and fewer employment opportunities for low-skill, entry-level workers. They suggest that employers would be forced to lay off some workers to pay the increased wages of those who remain on the job.
Morse said she is thoroughly researching the issue.
So it was that she came to All Peoples Church on the edge of the garment district Thursday night to hear stories of what it is like to live as a low-wage worker.
Maria Ruiz, a mother of four, said she cannot feed and clothe her children on her $3.35-an-hour minimum wage salary as a garment worker.
Inocenta Bravo, a teen-ager about to start college at Cal State Dominguez Hills, said that one of her required textbooks costs $45. "That's more than a day's pay for me" at the 7-Eleven store where she works, Bravo said. She, too, earns the minimum wage of $3.35 an hour.
"I might be considered rich here--making $4.81 an hour," said Al Anderson, a maintenance man at a Japanese retirement home in Boyle Heights. But Anderson said he is having a hard time keeping his head above water, despite taking such frugal measures as using a wood-burning stove to reduce his gas bill. He said he is two months behind on his electric bill because he needed the money to pay for dental work for his wife.
"If I don't get at least another $25 to $30 a month, I don't know what I'll do," Anderson said. "We keep getting further and further in the hole."
Though remaining non-committal, Morse indicated clear sympathy with the plight of the people she met at the meeting and in some house calls she made on Wednesday and Thursday.
"I was particularly grateful to visit people in their own homes and to see for myself--because I'm a visually oriented person--some of the problems that families have with respect to earning enough money in this country of ours to do what we should be able to do with our children, and really with our own sense of well-being," Morse said in a brief statement after listening to the stories Thursday.
In an interview after the meeting, Morse said she is no stranger to pressure. But it is unlikely that she has ever had so much attention focused on a decision that she is going to make as this one.
The aspirations of 600,000 Californians earning minimum wages may rise or fall depending on what she does, said Grace Trejo, chairwoman of the South-Central Organizing Committee, who ran the meeting. The gathering was also convened by the United Neighborhoods Organization and the East Valley Organization.
"We believe that as Americans and as people of Judeo-Christian values, we deserve a moral standard of living and a moral minimum wage, and Mrs. Morse seems to be agreeing with us," Trejo said in her closing remarks.
"Mrs. Morse, we have heard that you are a person of integrity and a very fair person and a woman who gets things done--a moral person--and we pray that the spirit will guide you as you make that decision on Sept. 11."