Sebastopol resident Paul Esparza earns $11.65 an hour for his work as an in-home care provider, cooking, cleaning and tending to the daily medical needs of a pair of elderly men and a 38-year-old man who has developmental disabilities.
The pay is barely enough to support Esparza and his three teenage children, leading him to take side jobs to make ends meet.
“We are so underpaid for this kind of work,” said Esparza, 57.
That grievance is at the heart of an escalating debate in Sonoma County, pitting the largest group of county-affiliated contractors and their allies in organized labor against county officials and taxpayer advocates concerned about ballooning public expenses.
Propelled by a growing national movement to address flat wages for a large swath of the working class, local labor activists are redoubling their push for a sweeping pay raise, to $15 an hour, for about 5,500 county-affiliated workers, including nearly 5,000 in-home care workers like Esparza.
The move comes on the heels of the Board of Supervisors recent endorsement for a narrower wage boost, which would raise pay to $13 an hour for 560 people employed under county contracts.
Supervisors balked at broader action covering more workers, including in-home care providers, citing concerns over costs for taxpayers and other budget priorities.
The stance sets up a looming standoff with labor advocates, who are hoping to seize on momentum from other cities and counties across California and the country where proposals to raise pay for low-income workers have surfaced and passed recently.
The issue could be one of the most contentious to come before the Board of Supervisors next year.
Activists say the county’s scaled-down living wage measure falls far short.
“I’d call it a huge step backwards,” said Marty Bennett, co-chair of North Bay Jobs with Justice, the nonprofit group leading the call for a broader living wage measure. “This whole issue is growing regionally across the Bay Area and nationally. Our timing is critical.”
But supervisors say they can’t afford to spend millions of dollars a year on pay increases, while advancing other budget priorities including funding universal preschool and fixing the county’s crumbling roads.
“I know that Marty is trying to drum up grassroots support, but I don’t know how we pay for that,” said Supervisor David Rabbitt, the board chairman. “Pay for in-home care workers is determined by collective bargaining, and that’s probably where it should be.”
The stagnation of wages over the past decade for low- and middle-income workers has become a key political talking point nationwide, and labor groups have increasingly lobbied local governments to set a higher pay floor for the lowest wage earners.
The high cost of living in the Bay Area has made it a hotbed for such campaigns, and labor-friendly politicians in the region have shown that they are willing to back the pay increases.
“We’re seeing this become very important, and now we have here in the Bay Area the highest wage law that’s been passed in the country,” said Ken Jacobs, chair of the Labor Center at UC Berkeley, referring to Santa Clara County’s recent passage of a $19 per hour living wage. “There are multiple reasons to raise wages, but the core argument is that people who are working hard should earn enough to survive and support their families.”