Calling it a "matter of justice," Gov. Jerry Brown put his signature on a bill that will hike California's minimum wage to $10 an hour within three years, making it one of the highest rates in the nation.
The legislation signed Wednesday at a ceremony in downtown Los Angeles will gradually raise the current minimum of $8 an hour to $9 on July 1, 2014, then to $10 on Jan. 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's fair to pay fast-food workers, retail clerks and others wages so low that they often have to work 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 the state's economy.
The state Senate approved AB10 on a 26-11 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 left 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 wage.
The federal minimum provides $15,080 a year assuming a 40-hour work week, which is $50 below the federal poverty line for a family of two. More than 15 million workers nationally earn the national minimum, which compares with the median national salary of $40,350, 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 per hour unless the Legislature raises it again in the future.