The movement to raise the minimum wage across the U.S. gained ground Wednesday with the vast University of California system announcing plans to increase base pay for its employees and contract workers to $15 an hour over the next two years.
The move follows similar steps by local governments and employers to give employees what activists call a "living wage." Los Angeles, Seattle and San Francisco have all approved phased-in increases that eventually will take their minimum wage to $15 an hour, or about $31,200 for a full-time job.
UC President Janet Napolitano said that as California's third-largest employer, the university should be taking the lead in ensuring its lowest-paid workers make decent wages. UC has 10 campuses, including UCLA and Berkeley, nearly 240,000 students and a staff of 195,000.
"Our community does not exist in a vacuum. How we support our workers and their families impacts Californians who might never set foot on one of our campuses," she said. "It's the right thing to do."
The university's hourly wage earners -- a group that includes students and full-time employees working in dining halls, dorms and bookstores or as gardeners, housekeepers and custodians at campuses and hospitals -- currently make the state minimum of $9 an hour.
Napolitano said she will boost that to $13 in October for employees who work at least 20 hours a week and by $1 an hour in each of the next two years.
About 4,200 UC employees and a much larger but undetermined number of workers hired by university contractors will receive the higher wage, UC spokeswoman Dianne Klein said.
"I just thought it was important for a public university to plant the flag here for low-wage workers and a more livable wage," Napolitano, who was President Barack Obama's homeland security secretary before she assumed leadership of the University of California nearly two years ago, said in an interview.
The higher minimum-wage argument has gained traction amid concerns over the shrinking middle class and rising income inequality. Supporters argue a higher wage floor will help lift the working poor into the middle class. Opponents warn businesses will have to raise prices or cut employees' hours.
Democrats, including presidential front-runner Hillary Rodham Clinton, have said they support a higher federal minimum wage, which is currently $7.25 per hour.
Vice President Joe Biden was scheduled to promote a higher minimum wage during a stop Wednesday at a washroom equipment manufacturer in Los Angeles.
On Tuesday, Los Angeles County, the nation's most populous county, voted to craft a law to raise the minimum wage to $15 over the next five years.
On the other side of the country, a New York state board Wednesday was poised to recommend a minimum wage increase for fast-food workers. The state's minimum wage is now $8.75 an hour and is set to rise to $9 an hour at year's end. Many fast-food workers say their industry should pay a minimum of $15 so that they can afford the high cost of living in New York City and elsewhere.
Wal-Mart, the nation's largest private employer, announced in February that it was raising its wages for a half-million employees to at least $10 an hour by next February.
The $15 minimum has become the rallying cry of labor groups nationwide who argue the base wage hasn't kept up with inflation.
University of California officials estimated that the raises for workers directly employed by UC will cost $14 million a year, a fraction of the system's $12.6 billion annual payroll. Klein said UC also predicts contractors will pass some of the cost of higher wages onto the university.
In recent months, workers and UC union leaders have complained about the university's increased reliance on contractors who, they allege, treat employees unfairly.
Napolitano said she is setting up a hotline and online reporting system so complaints about contractors' labor practices go directly to her office. The university also plans to audit its contractors to make sure they are paying their workers the higher base wage, she said.
Napolitano's minimum wage plan does not need approval from the governing Board of Regents, who on Wednesday were scheduled to consider a 3 percent cost-of-living increase for campus chancellors, medical center directors and other top executives.