By David Mills
They are in the public eye every day.
People see them while they’re shopping, when they’re eating in a restaurant, when they’re staying at a hotel.
Minimum wage earners are more common than many people might think.
There are 2.3 million Californians who work for minimum wage. There aren’t statistics readily available on how many people earn this basic salary at city or county levels.
However, Census Bureau statistics can give us some idea of who is in that range at a local level.
The federal minimum wage is $7.25 an hour. In California, the minimum wage is $8 an hour.
A person who works 40 hours a week at the state rate earns $16,640 a year -- before taxes.
According to the Census Bureau, there are 269 households in Capitola that earn between $10,000 and $15,000 a year and 177 in Soquel. Another 394 Capitola households and 279 Soquel households that bring home between $15,000 and $25,000 annually.
Not all of these folks are minimum wage earners. Some may work part-time. Others may earn slightly above minimum wage. Some may be retirees on Social Security or other benefits. Some households might have two part-time wage earners.
But low-salary employees are at the center of debates in Sacramento and Washington over whether to raise the minimum wage.
In Congress, Congressman George Miller (D-Martinez) and other representatives are trying to get the House to vote on a bill to raise the wage. However, the House hasn’t taken up the issue since it voted down a similar proposal in March. President Obama has proposed raising it from $7.25 to $9 an hour.
Another version is currently making its way through the state Senate. This would raise the minimum wage to $10 over four years years, a $2 increase.
A number of business-oriented groups oppose such a hike in the minimum wage. Among them is the California Restaurant Association.
Matt Sutton, the group’s vice president of government affairs and public policy, says the proposal would be too much of a burden for many businesses in California.
“It’s incredibly aggressive. It’s too much, too fast and the timing is off,” he said.
Sutton says minimum wage is a starting salary, not a permanent one. He noted if there is a $2 increase in the minimum wage, that’s $80 a week for every full-time employee at that rate.
For the majority of California 22,000 eating establishments, many of whom operate on a 2 to 5 percent profit margin, that might be too much to absorb.
He added an increase in the minimum wage also puts “upward pressure” on employers to hike the salaries of workers who make just above minimum wage.
“It will put a strain on the limited labor dollars restaurants have,” he said.
He said restaurants are trying to recoup as the nation comes out of this recession and are facing a federal tax increase on Jan. 1.
He also disagrees with the contention a minimum wage hike increases consumer spending by low-wage employees and helps the overall economy. He said that only works if companies don’t lay off workers or cut their hours.
Those who support a minimum wage hike disagree.
Mitch Seaman of the California Labor Federation said minimum wage workers are the type of consumers who “spend every dollar they get,” so a boost in their pay gets pumped right back into the economy.
“A minimum wage increase is every bit as important to the economy as it is to them,” he said.
Seaman also noted the minimum wage is a program that ensures everybody who is working has enough to live on.
“Too many people would fall through the cracks without it,” he said. “They’d be left further behind than they are already.”
Seaman and Jack Temple of the National Employment Law Project say two-thirds of minimum wage employees work for larger companies that employ more than 100 people.
Typical jobs include maids, store clerks, dishwashers and fast food workers. Waitresses, waiters and other workers who earn tips are also usually paid minimum wage as their base salary.
Companies such as Walmart and McDonald’s are among those with minimum wage employees.
Temple and Seaman say those firms can afford to pay workers more.
“I think we need to make them share their profits,” said Temple.
Patch contacted Walmart and McDonald’s for comment on this story, but we received no response.
Temple and Seaman say minimum wage workers rely on family members, second jobs and government assistance to get by.
They rely on programs such as food stamps, Medicaid and federal housing to make ends meet. They also skip things such as doctor’s visits and trips to a restaurant to save money.
“They get by but at a high cost,” said Seaman.
Both say a raise in the minimum wage would reduce these employees’ reliance on government programs and save tax dollars.
They point to a congressional report that analyzes the impact of Walmart’s minimum wage employees on the taxpayer.
‘“A minimum wage hike is good for everybody,” said Temple.