By Sharon Bernstein
SACRAMENTO, California (Reuters) - Minimum wage workers in California would earn $10 an hour by 2016 under a bill passed by the legislature on Thursday, making the state likely to become the first in the nation to commit to such a high rate.
The bill, which Governor Jerry Brown said he will sign, would increase the minimum wage for hourly workers in the most populous U.S. state from the current rate of $8 an hour to $9 in July 2014, and to $10 by January 2016.
"The minimum wage has not kept pace with rising costs," Brown, a Democrat, said in a statement. "This legislation is overdue and will help families that are struggling in this harsh economy."
Brown, protective of the state's tenuous economic recovery, had initially opposed the bill but agreed to support it on Wednesday after leaders of both houses of the Democratic-led state legislature agreed to postpone the effective date of the raise until 2016.
The measure won support from Democrats, passing the Senate on a vote of 26-11 and the Assembly on a vote of 51-25. But it was opposed by many Republicans who said it would hurt small businesses and ultimately cost some low-wage workers their jobs.
"The impact of this is not on huge employers," said Republican Senator Jim Nielsen, who represents much of the far northern part of the state near the Oregon border. "It is on the smaller employer, the mom and pop operation."
To get the bill passed, leaders in the more conservative state Assembly had to win over business-friendly Democrats who were initially skeptical.
Assemblyman Al Muratsuchi, a Democrat who represents the Los Angeles suburb of Torrance, said he voted against the bill when it was initially introduced. But after it was amended to include a later, and more specific, date for the rise to $10 per hour, he was more comfortable with it.
"This time I'm supporting this bill because it is a compromise," Muratsuchi said. "It gives employers predictability to plan for the higher labor costs."
No state currently pays $10 per hour to minimum wage workers, and that rate is well above the federal minimum wage of $7.25 an hour. The current highest state minimum wage is $9.19 in Washington state.
California is among a number of states looking to increase minimum wages to at least $10 an hour, according to the National Employment Law Project.
In Washington state, the minimum hourly wage for some workers could rise to above $10 an hour by 2016, because it is set to increase with certain indicators of inflation.
The U.S. enacted its first minimum wage in 1938, during the last years of the Great Depression. Today, debate continues on whether government should mandate higher pay for low-wage workers.
In Washington state on Wednesday, an appeals court panel cleared the way for a ballot initiative proposing that pay for hospitality and transportation workers at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport and at businesses associated with it start at $15 an hour.
(Additional reporting by Jim Christie; Editing by Cynthia Johnston and Eric Walsh)