Calling it a "matter of justice," Gov. Jerry Brown on Wednesday signed a bill that will raise California's minimum wage to $10 an hour within three years, giving the state one of the highest rates in the nation.
The legislation, signed at a ceremony in downtown Los Angeles, will gradually increase the current minimum of $8 an hour to $9 on July 1, 2014, then to $10 on January 1, 2016.
The increase is the first to the state's minimum wage in six years, and comes amid a national debate over whether it is fair to pay fast-food workers, retail clerks and others wages so low that the workers often have to hold second or third jobs.
Brown called the bill an overdue piece of legislation that will help working-class families and close the gap between "workers at the bottom and those who occupy the commanding heights of the economy."
The governor was joined by state legislators and business owners who supported the measure, saying increased wages would boost California's economy.
The state Senate approved the bill, AB10, on a 26 to 11 vote Sept. 12, and the Assembly followed hours later on a 51-25 vote. Both chambers voted largely along party lines.
Miguel Aguilar, a worker at a Los Angeles car wash, thanked the governor for signing the bill.
"We work really long hours," said Aguilar, who has a union contract. "Now, with the increase in the minimum wage, we'll be able to sustain an income that can support our families."
Supporters said the bill by Assemblyman Luis Alejo, D-Watsonville, would help workers who fell behind during the recent recession.
"A higher minimum wage will mean much-needed money in the pockets of millions of workers in the state, and that's good news for businesses throughout California that will benefit from increased consumer spending," Gary Gerber, founder and CEO of Sun Light & Power in Berkeley, said in a statement.
In opposing the measure, Republican lawmakers said increased wages would encourage businesses to cut jobs and automate.
The California Chamber of Commerce was against the bill, saying it will drive up businesses' costs by ratcheting up other wages and workers' compensation payments.
"Small business owners will now be forced to make tough choices, including reducing employee hours, cutting positions entirely and, for many, closing their doors altogether," said John Kabateck, head of the California branch of the National Federation of Independent Business.
Federal law sets a minimum wage of $7.25 per hour, but California is among 19 states and the District of Columbia that set a higher state minimum.
The federal minimum provides $15,080 a year, assuming a 40-hour workweek; that amounts to $50 below the federal poverty line for a family of two. The median national salary, meanwhile, is $40,350. More than 15 million workers nationally earn the national minimum, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.
President Barack Obama has sought an increase of the federal minimum wage to $9 an hour.
Among states, Washington has the top minimum wage at $9.19 an hour, an amount pegged to rise with inflation. But some cities have set higher rates, including San Francisco, which has the nation's highest minimum wage at $10.50 an hour.
The California bill does not index the rate to inflation, meaning it would remain at $10 unless the legislature raises it again in the future.