Currently, the federal minimum wage stands at just $7.25 per hour, despite recent calls for a $15 minimum wage. The top five cities in the United States with the highest minimum wage, as of 2021, are Emeryville, Calif.; Seattle; Sunnyvale, Calif.; Mountain View, Calif.; and San Francisco.

Additionally, several states have passed bills that will eventually put all cities in their jurisdiction at $15 or more per hour. Workers in some of these cities will have to wait a few years for the new minimum wage laws to be implemented fully. For example, Florida residents voted in Nov. 2020 to increase the state's minimum wage incrementally (beginning at $10 per hour on Sept. 30, 2021) until it reaches $15 per hour in Sept. 2026.

Key Takeaways

  • The minimum wage is the legal lowest amount an employer can pay an hourly worker.
  • The federal minimum wage has been stuck at $7.25 for more than a decade, but there have been recent efforts to raise it to $15 per hour.
  • Several cities have their own minimum wages that exceed the federal level.

The Push for Higher Minimum Wages

Prior to the early 2010s, few states and municipalities had minimum wages significantly higher than the federal minimum wage. This changed when minimum wage workers, particularly in these cities, came together to spread awareness about their plight. Since its peak in 1968, the minimum wage relative to inflation and cost of living has fallen steadily.

These awareness campaigns were highly successful, drawing support from high-profile activists who have since successfully pushed local governments in several cities to mandate higher minimum wages that enable workers to be self-sufficient.

It is mathematically impossible—especially in expensive cities—even working full-time, to support oneself, much less a family, on a minimum wage job. All five cities listed below are among the most expensive in the U.S., with residents of San Francisco having an approximately 25% lower standard of living in 2018 than those living in other American cities (in terms of purchasing power).

1. Emeryville: $16.84 Per Hour

When Emeryville, Calif. first set its own minimum wage in 2015, it initially established two different rates that applied either to small or large businesses. This remained the case each time the minimum wage was annually increased until 2019, when a rate of $16.30 was set for any business (excluding certain small independent restaurants). On July 1, 2020, Emeryville raised its minimum wage for all businesses to $16.48 per hour, making it the highest in the U.S.

Despite having the lowest population of any city on this list, this rate makes sense in light of the fact that Emeryville's cost of living is higher than the entire state of California's in several categories, including housing, groceries, and health.

2. Seattle: $16.69 Per Hour

In June 2014, Seattle made history when its city council signed into a law a mandate to raise the minimum wage for all workers in the city to $15 per hour. The city became the first in the U.S. with a $15 minimum wage. At that point, no other city had a minimum wage that was even close.

The minimum wage has since been increased further, a rise that began in 2018 but didn't affect all workers citywide until 2021. As of 2021, both large and small businesses pay $16.69 per hour. In the case of the latter, this is reduced to $15 if the employer pays $1.69 per hour toward medical benefits and/or the employee earns $1.69 per hour in tips. Additionally, Seattle is the only city on this list not located in California.

3. Sunnyvale: $16.30 Per Hour

Sunnyvale, Calif., originally established its own minimum wage on Jan. 1, 2015, at $10.30 per hour. When the ordinance was adopted, it included provisions to ensure the rate would annually rise by a set amount until it reached $15 in 2019. Additionally, Sunnyvale established that, each year after 2019, the minimum wage will rise in response to any increase in the cost of living, up to a maximum of 5% annually, in the year prior. This is meant to ensure inflation can't reduce the rate's value. As of Jan. 1, 2021, the city's minimum wage is $16.30 per hour.

SeaTac, Calif., actually has a higher minimum wage than Sunnyvale, at $16.57 per hour. However, this is only available to employees within the city's hospitality and transportation industries. Outside of those workers, SeaTac's general minimum wage is the same as the state minimum wage of $13.69 per hour.

4. Mountain View: $16.30 Per Hour

Like Sunnyvale, Mountain View, Calif., established a local minimum wage of $10.30 per hour on Jan. 1, 2015. It was also set to rise by a specified amount each year until it reached $15 in 2018. From 2019 onward, in order to combat inflation, the rate will increase based on any rise in the cost of living in the preceding year. As of Jan. 1, 2021, Mountain View's minimum wage is $16,30 per hour.

5. San Francisco: $16.07 Per Hour

While Seattle was technically the first U.S. city to pass a $15 per hour minimum wage into law, San Francisco's similar law, approved by voters in 2014, went into effect sooner. The city's higher minimum wage was implemented fully by 2018. This gave an immediate wage increase to 142,000 workers–23% of the city's workforce. The current minimum wage in San Francisco became $16.07 per hour on July 1, 2020. By July 1, 2021, it will increase to $16.32 per hour.

Another city in California, Berkeley, also had a minimum wage of $16.07 per hour as of July 1, 2020. By July 1, 2021, Berkeley's minimum wage "will increase by the prior calendar year's increase (if any) in the Consumer Price Index (CPI) for urban wage earners and clerical workers for the San Francisco-Oakland-San Jose, CA metropolitan statistical area."