Noe Valley Voice July-August 1999

Do 24th Street Workers Make a Living Wage?

By Karen Topakian

If local employers went along with Supervisor Tom Ammiano's proposed Living Wage law and paid their workers at least $11 an hour, you'd see some happy counter people in Downtown Noe Valley.

That's because, according to an informal poll conducted by the Voice, most 24th Street employees make about $3.50 less than the $11 suggested minimum.

The June survey -- of workers in 27 stores and restaurants along the commercial strip -- showed that the people who sell us coffee, CDs, baked goods, jewelry, clothes, shoes, cell phones, school supplies, notions, and dinner and dessert earn from $5.75 to $15 per hour.

However, the average starting pay for these jobs is just $7.43 an hour. (That is, the average for the 23 stores we polled. The four restaurants in our survey pay their wait staff the standard $5.75 an hour, which is California minimum wage. Since waiters make most of their money in tips, we didn't factor them into the average starting pay.)

The range in wages for food retail counter help is $6 to $15, according to people who work in the eight businesses surveyed. Beginning pay for these coffee, cheese, donut, and bagel stores averages $7.63 an hour.

The 15 other shops we surveyed, which sell everything from flowers to home furnishings, pay from $5.75 to $12 per hour. But the average starting pay is $7.33. (And these workers don't usually make tips.) A few stores pay commissions on sales; most do not.

Roxanne, who was born and raised in Noe Valley, is painfully aware of the going rates. "I have worked in three local businesses, and I have not made more than $7.25 per hour at any of them," she said.

Many store workers said they couldn't afford to live on their own and therefore had to live with their families. Others felt compelled to live outside the neighborhood or even outside San Francisco.

Monica, who works for a food retail company, summed up the situation for everyone: "We work here, but we can't afford to live here."

For this reason, 24th Street employees would be pleased to see a Living Wage law passed in San Francisco. But even if Ammiano's measure succeeds (which seems unlikely), most Noe Valley workers will not be directly affected. The ordinance would apply only to businesses that have contracts with the city.

So, the next time you get a big smile and a thank-you from the person behind the counter, remember the tip jar.