Sonoma County supervisors shelve living-wage ordinance

The Board of Supervisors on Tuesday tabled a plan to boost wages for 1,100 contractors and nonprofit employees, a move hailed as a victory for labor activists and low-wage earners who argued the proposal did not go far enough to guarantee a “living wage” for all county workers.

The ordinance, which passed unanimously in June, was due for final approval during a routine administrative action Tuesday. In a rare occurrence, Board of Supervisors Chairwoman Susan Gorin removed it from the agenda and shelved the ordinance following more than two months of intense lobbying from living-wage advocates, labor unions and their supporters.

Gorin said the county wants to gather more information from businesses and nonprofit agencies that would be affected by pay increases.

“We want to take our time, and we want to get it right,” Gorin said to a packed room of living wage advocates.

Outside, people chanted “We can’t survive on $11.65,” highlighting the hourly wage of in-home caregivers.

Labor groups are pushing supervisors to adopt a broader living wage ordinance, raising pay to $15 per hour for 5,500 workers employed under county contracts - from in-home caregivers to nonprofit employees and for-profit contractors. The more narrow ordinance poised for adoption Tuesday would have immediately increased wages to $15 per hour for 180 for-profit county contractors, and phased in pay raises for about 920 nonprofit employees.

Critics, including Marty Bennett, chairman of the living wage campaign, said the county’s proposal was “woefully inadequate.” They sought to make an impression on supervisors, and called on hundreds of their supporters to protest the county’s ordinance.

More than 100 people gathered outside the Board of Supervisors chambers Tuesday during an hourlong rally calling for higher pay. The demonstration marked the largest and most public display yet in their campaign to boost wages for county-affiliated workers.

“Our job is to get three votes for the strong, comprehensive ordinance we want,” said Bennett, as he raised his arms to drum up support from the crowd of protesters. “Our job is to bring the ‘fight for $15’ to Sonoma County.”

Bennett’s spirited speech outside the board chambers aimed to seize on growing momentum at the state and federal level to boost wages for low-income workers. The action was met with loud cheers from activists and labor representatives, who carried signs reading “End poverty wages” and “Sonoma County needs a living wage.”

“Home care workers are at the center of the national ‘fight for $15,’?” Bennett said. “We are going to be pushing for all of them to be covered.”

The issue has become a thorny one for supervisors, and could be pivotal as three seats come up for election next year. Political endorsements and campaign donations from unions can be a key factor in county races.

Supervisors Gorin and Shirlee Zane are running to retain their seats, and both were backed by labor groups during their previous supervisorial bids. Supervisor Efren Carrillo said he has not decided whether he will run.

Tuesday’s action featured dozens of in-home support workers, as well as representatives of the Sonoma County Democratic Party and organizers from the Service Employees International Union, representing the largest group of unionized Sonoma County government workers, including in-home caregivers.

“The Democratic Party stands firmly behind you,” said Bleys Rose, chairman of the local organization. “This is an important plank in the Democratic Party platform.”

Supervisors have balked at the wider pay proposal put forward by Bennett and other living-wage advocates. Gorin said Tuesday that the board does not plan to include in-home support workers in a ?county-funded ordinance. She said compensation should be handled at the bargaining table, pointing out that at present, the group of about 5,000 in-home caregivers is in union negotiations.

“We recognize the important work care providers perform for their clients,” Gorin said. “They are represented by a union and the county has begun negotiations at the bargaining table.”

Bennett and union workers have called the county’s proposals so far “insulting.”

“These are people who take care of the elderly and disabled,” said Benigno Delgado, a negotiator with the union. “The contract the county has proposed would lock workers into poverty wages for four years.”

Delgado said the county has offered a 10-cent pay raise over the next two years, and another 10 cents after that, for a total of $11.85 per hour by 2019.

Gorin said she and Supervisor James Gore will convene a series of meetings with Bennett and other advocates over the next few months. A full discussion on the matter is expected in late October or November.

You can reach Staff Writer Angela Hart at 526-8503 or On Twitter @ahartreports.

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