Owen Thomas
Illustration by Owen Thomas.


Gov. Jerry Brown signed the Fair Wage Act into law on April 4, which will raise the hourly minimum wage to $15 — the highest statewide minimum wage in the country. The wage will gradually increase from the current $10, recently raised this January, to $15 per hour in 2022 for large businesses, and by 2023 for smaller businesses.

The legislation comes in the wake of an already approved minimum wage increase by the UC. The university system adopted the UC Fair Wage/Fair Work Plan to create a $15 hourly wage by October 2017.

The first stage of the UC plan began by raising the minimum wage to $13 per hour by Oct. 1, 2015, $14 by Oct. 1, 2016 and will finally raise wages to $15 per hour by Oct. 1, 2017. This change only applies to UC staff working at least 20 hours per week, but students can only work a weekly maximum of 19.5 hours on campus.

“Though the minimum wage is higher, that doesn’t come into play until 2022. That’s a long way off,” said UC Santa Cruz economics professor Dr. Michael M. Hutchison. “Other states can also raise their minimum wages. The cost of living is much higher here, so I don’t think people are coming here for the minimum wage jobs.”

UCSC sociology and legal studies professor Dr. Hiroshi Fukurai believes although the increase is positive and California residents will make more money, the issue is much more complicated when thinking about students.

“It’s good the minimum wage was raised. It’s a good trend, and it should be applauded,” Fukurai said. “At the same time the wages students earn will not make up a fraction of the tuition they owe.”

Andy, whose name has been changed, is a third-year undocumented UCSC student who is supported by the DREAM Act, which helps him to pay for tuition and living costs. He’s currently working full time at a minimum wage job, in addition to being a full-time student. He also works smaller jobs on the side, like fixing cars and bikes, to support himself.

“I can’t afford school without my job,” Andy said. “It’s very difficult because I need to pay for school.”

Andy’s situation isn’t unusual. Students who juggle employment and their education are struggling to keep up.

The average student working 20 hours per week at $15 per hour would make around $9,000 during the school term, not including academic breaks and summer. In-state tuition and fees are currently at $13,461 annually, without housing, transportation, food and school supplies.

“There have to be discussions on what affordable tuition for students looks like or about whether students should pay tuition at all,” Fukurai said.

Santa Cruz County is ranked as the fifth most expensive metro area in the U.S. to live in, according to the National Low Income Housing Coalition (NLIHC). The average hourly wage needed to live in the Santa Cruz-Watsonville area is $23.75, according to a 2014 report by the Bureau of Labor Statistics. This means that low-income families and students earning minimum wage are unlikely to meet the estimated cost put forth by the NLIHC.

California’s proposed $15 minimum in 2022 would be worth about $13.79 in today’s buying power because of inflation.

“In terms of the cost of living, the minimum wage has been playing catch up with the cost of living in the state of California,” said Dr. Michael M. Hutchison. “[Minimum wage] has actually been lagging behind … you have to look at a minimum wage in terms of its purchasing power.”