Louise Auerhahn’s first job is convincing people there is a problem. She is a labor advocate, lobbying for higher wages for low and middle class workers in Santa Clara County, a community with some of the highest salaries in the country thanks to the concentration of well-paying technology jobs.
But maintenance workers, bus drivers, gardeners and other low-income employees who provide valuable services to Silicon Valley firms have struggled under the sharp rise in the cost of living in the South Bay.
Auerhahn and others last year pushed for and passed a living wage ordinance, setting a minimum wage of $19.06 per hour for county workers and contractors and providing paid sick leave and access to more work hours per week. Following the county’s example, several tech companies boosted their wages, she said.
“I get this question a lot. ‘Why do you need a living wage? Aren’t you all tech millionaires?’” said Auerhahn, a policy director with Working Partnerships in San Jose. “There just aren’t enough good-paying jobs being created right now. We have a lot of people stuck in low-wage jobs.”
Auerhahn spoke Saturday in Santa Rosa at a forum organized by North Bay Jobs with Justice, the coalition of labor advocates that is pressing for a similar living wage ordinance for Sonoma County. Such proposals, which have passed in jurisdictions around the country, seek to address the growing problem of wage stagnation.
As the economy recovers and many people are rejoining the labor force, they are finding that wages have not kept up with the rising cost of rental housing, food and medical expenses. The latest employment report from the Department of Labor showed that the economy added 295,000 jobs last month for a near-normal unemployment rate of 5.5 percent, but wage growth continued to lag, rising a mere 0.1 percent.
The proposal that advocates have presented to the Sonoma County Board of Supervisors would set a $15 per hour minimum wage for county employees and contracted workers. The wage would be adjusted annually with the cost of living. California’s minimum wage is $9 per hour.
“We are trying to educate people on what it costs to make ends meet,” said Marty Bennett, an organizer with North Bay Jobs with Justice. “We want our local campaign to ripple up to a regional and state level.”
Sonoma, Sebastopol and Petaluma have passed minimum wage laws. In Petaluma, the minimum wage rate is $13.66 for workers whose employers offer medical benefits and $15.32 without benefits. For help crafting a countywide measure, advocates are looking south to San Francisco, which has a $15 per hour minimum wage law, and Santa Clara County, two places with a widening income gap due to the influx of tech jobs.
In San Francisco, the median rent for a one- bedroom apartment is $3,460, Gordon Mar, the San Francisco Jobs with Justice executive director, told the audience of about 100 at the Saturday morning forum. Many longtime residents can no longer afford to live in the city, he said.
“We’ve seen the gap between the rich and poor growing rapidly,” he said. “There are similarities in the economic challenges facing families in San Francisco and what you are talking about here” in Sonoma County.
Advocates hope the Board of Supervisors takes up their living wage proposal next month. Gary Wysocky, a Santa Rosa city councilman who attended the forum, said the city could potentially consider a similar ordinance.