Sonoma County labor activists are escalating their fight to persuade the Board of Supervisors to increase wages to $15 per hour for thousands of county contractors and other workers employed by companies that do business with the county.
After repeated unsuccessful attempts over the past year to convince supervisors to adopt a broad living-wage ordinance that would cover an estimated 5,500 county-affiliated employees — including about 5,000 in-home caregivers — living-wage advocates are pivoting to a more visible and vocal approach.
The union representing in-home caregivers jumped into the campaign by staging a demonstration Tuesday outside of the Board of Supervisors chambers in hopes of amassing the political support needed to expand the county’s existing proposal, which excludes in-home caregivers.
“We want the Board of Supervisors to reconsider their living-wage ordinance and include in-home care workers,” said Sean Wherley, a spokesman for the Service Employees International Union-United Health Care Workers West. “They are leaving out the people who take care of the most vulnerable seniors and disabled.”
Supporters are seeking to seize on what they called widespread public support across the country to raise pay for low-wage earners. The issue comes amid rising momentum to combat stagnant wages and income inequality by raising the pay floor — a major political talking point at the local, state and national levels.
County supervisors, however, have balked at the broader proposal, put forward last September by North Bay Jobs with Justice, a coalition of labor, faith, environmental and community-based organizations. In June, supervisors endorsed a narrower, less expensive plan, put forward by staff and a county consultant, that would immediately set a wage of $15 per hour for employees of about 180 for-profit county contractors. Roughly 920 nonprofit employees would later be phased in. The ordinance is set to be finalized in August.
Supervisors indicated this week that they don’t plan to change their minds.
“I have great respect for the union, but the union is in negotiations right now, and we’re leaving it up to the union negotiations to set wages,” Board of Supervisors Chairwoman Susan Gorin said. “That is one of the strongest reasons we are not considering adding in-home support workers to the living-wage ordinance.”
Other supervisors supported Gorin’s stance.
“Addressing the crisis of low-wage employment has to be focused on growing early education and … promoting higher education at all levels,” Supervisor Efren Carrillo said. “The people staging the protest simply want the board to sign off on their language, but they are out of touch with the county’s priorities in truly addressing poverty in this county.”
Labor advocates said they are sharpening their focus on a living wage in the hopes of making it a major issue in races next year for county supervisor. Three supervisors — Gorin, Shirlee Zane and Efren Carrillo — are up for re-election in 2016.
“One supervisor up for re-election has already claimed victory for passing a living wage, so we’re reminding them that as the ordinance stands, no one should be claiming victory,” said Matt Myers, an activist with North Bay Jobs with Justice. Myers declined to say which supervisor he was referring to while contending the county proposal “falls way too short.”
“These in-home support workers are earning $11.65,” he said. “That’s poverty wages, and you can’t live on that.”