Sonoma County supervisors endorse narrower plan for wage raise
The Sonoma County Board of Supervisors on Tuesday cast its first vote in favor of a move that would immediately set a wage of $15 an hour for employees of for-profit county contractors and would later extend to employees of nonprofit groups who perform work for the county.
The decision drew mixed reaction from labor advocates, who were lobbying for a broader proposal that would have covered as many as 5,500 workers. The county’s plan, instead, will cover about 180 contractors initially and about 920 workers once nonprofit employees are incorporated.
The board’s unanimous decision in favor of a narrower, less expensive plan followed several hours of discussion on a living-wage ordinance, including lengthy public comment from dozens of labor advocates, religious leaders, community organizers and nonprofit executives. Most supported the broader proposal, which would have included nearly 4,900 in-home caregivers.
Supervisors, however, expressed concern over the cost of raising wages for in-home caregivers. The annual estimated cost of the broader proposal would top $12 million a year, with more than 90 percent of the expense associated with the proposed $15 hourly wage for in-home care providers, according to a county consultant.
“We have more (in-home care) workers than county employees,” said Supervisor David Rabbitt, explaining his concern about the broader move, which supervisors signaled could put too much pressure on the county budget. The county’s plan is estimated to cost about $808,000 annually at full rollout.
Labor advocates welcomed the board’s endorsement of a $15 living wage; the initial plan called for minimum hourly pay of $13. But the move to carve out in-home care workers was a bitter disappointment for labor advocates and others who showed up Tuesday.
Emelia Locke, a local in-home caregiver, said the county’s decision suggests her work and that of her fellow providers is not as valued as that of other health care workers. The in-home caretakers get an hourly wage of $11.65, which they secured through collective bargaining with the county.
“I’m very disappointed that we weren’t included,” Locke said. “We’re all doing some of the same work trying to help our clients to the best of our ability no matter what, and we should all get paid the same.”
Some supervisors said that wage changes for in-home care workers are more appropriately handled in labor negotiations, since those workers are represented by a union.
Tuesday’s discussion comes amid a widening trend of minimum wage increases in cities and counties across the country. Local Democratic Party and labor activists were hoping to seize on that momentum to push through the broader proposal, one they argued could help address a host of economic pressures - chief among them income stagnation and soaring housing and health care costs - that have pushed thousands into persistent poverty in the county.
Others have argued that a living-wage ordinance could lead to a reduction in jobs, push employers to offer fewer hours and perhaps lead some employers to scale back benefits.
The Board of Supervisors took up the issue before a standing-room-only crowd, but the supervisors’ vote hours later came before a much smaller audience and provoked dismay for many of those who stuck around.
“We expected a much broader living wage ordinance to be passed,” said Barbara Giordano, a member of North Bay Jobs with Justice, the advocacy group that had pushed the broader proposal.
In opting for a $15 wage increase for employees of for-profit and nonprofit contractors, the supervisors nevertheless rejected a proposal made by county administrative staff. That proposal would have raised pay to $13 an hour for only about 160 employees of for-profit businesses that contract with the county.
The $13 an hour recommendation came from a report prepared for the county by Oakland-based Blue Sky Consulting Group. Matthew Newman, co-founder of Blue Sky, told the Board of Supervisors Tuesday that living-wage ordinances were only one way of addressing poverty in a community, and that many other strategies were needed.
“There’s no magic bullet,” Newman said.
A good deal of time Tuesday was spent discussing the county’s current anti-poverty efforts, including public assistance, early childhood education and job training.
Supervisor Shirlee Zane said the growing wage gap between lower income, largely Latino residents in the county and higher income workers was of great concern. She also cited figures that put the share of elderly residents who are below the federal poverty line at 40 percent.
“Man, we are going in the wrong direction,” she said. But, she said, “we also need to make sure that what we do here is sustainable.”
The debate comes amid an escalating national movement to address stagnant wages for the middle class, and as cities and counties in the Bay Area and throughout the state adopt minimum-wage increases to keep pace with the rising cost of living associated, in part, with the economic recovery.
Many people who attended the meeting wore tags that said, “$15 Now” or “Fight for $15,” a reference to the national campaign. Living-wage ordinances are similar to minimum-wage laws in that they set a baseline amount workers must be paid, but differ because wages are often aimed at particular workforce and are tailored to meet a specific community’s cost of living - taking into account how much local housing and child care costs, for example, as well as other factors such as local taxes. The state’s current minimum wage, $9 an hour, is set to rise to $10 by 2016.
Local governments can set higher pay levels in their jurisdictions and several cities have recently taken that step, including Los Angeles, San Francisco and Oakland, where the future minimum wage is set to be $15 an hour.
City council members from Sebastopol and Petaluma, which have enacted living-wage ordinances, were among those on hand Tuesday to urge the county to support a minimum hourly wage of $15. The ordinance tentatively approved Tuesday will get a second reading and final vote on June 23.
You can reach Staff Writer Martin Espinoza at 521-5213 or email@example.com. On Twitter @renofish.