The Santa Monica City Council has unexpectedly ordered its staff to draft a "living wage ordinance" that would require significantly higher pay for many workers at large businesses in the city's coastal tourism zone.
The 5-2 vote after midnight Wednesday morning came four months after Santa Monica voters overwhelmingly defeated a hotel-backed initiative, Proposition KK, which would have blocked such an ordinance. Council members said they hoped to vote on the new law by early June.
"I was surprised they moved that quickly," said Chamber of Commerce director Dan Ehler, who was among 43 people who testified at the heated meeting, which began Tuesday night.
"I'm disappointed and sorry that the council did not really heed the very clear signals and warnings from city attorney and manager relative to the legal issues."
Community and labor activists have long advocated a wage floor of more than $10 per hour for hotel maids and other service workers on the high-priced coast. Business groups, led by several luxury hotels, have fiercely opposed the idea and have vowed to challenge any such ordinance in court. However, proponents with Santa Monicans Allied for Responsible Tourism presented two legal opinions that the law would be constitutional.
The council left the actual level of pay open for further discussion, along with whether higher wages should be phased in over time or instituted more quickly. But the council majority otherwise voted to support a plan that would affect businesses along a two-mile coastal stretch and in the downtown core with annual revenue of at least $3 million.
"This is great news," said Vivian Rothstein, a member of Santa Monicans Allied and a longtime Santa Monica activist. "We proposed a very innovative living wage ordinance and the council majority made it clear that they want to go forward with that concept."
The proposal has drawn national attention because it would create a new model for living wage laws, which have been adopted by more than 50 local governments, including the city and county of Los Angeles.
Typically, living wage laws apply only to contractors who do business with the local government. Santa Monica would be the first city to require private businesses to pay the higher wage, on the grounds that those businesses benefit from public investments.