Sonoma County’s low-income workers left out of local recovery from 2017 wildfires

A report backed by the biggest local labor group predicts a bleak future for Sonoma County's working class unless policy steps are taken to allow low-income families to get a toehold back into the middle class.

The report was released in conjunction with a Monday night event sponsored by the Alliance for a Just Recovery, an umbrella group of local labor, environmental and faith groups calling for greater resources to be devoted towards low-income families as part of the 2017 local wildfire recovery effort.

The alliance - which includes groups such as North Bay Jobs with Justice, the North Bay Labor Council, Sonoma County Conservation Action and the Greenbelt Alliance, among others - contends lower-paid workers have been disproportionately hurt by the October 2017 wildfires, especially as the housing market got much tighter and more expensive after the fires destroyed of about 5,300 homes in the county.

The alliance wants local cities to adopt policies with a greater focus on affordable housing, rent-control policies, establishment of a public bank in Santa Rosa and area cities to implement a $15-per-hour living wage by 2020, three years earlier than it is scheduled to go into effect at the state level.

“A just recovery must include public policy tools to raise the wage floor, make housing more affordable and create good living-wage jobs,” said Emilia Carbajal, program director of the Graton Day Labor Center.

Jesus Guzman, a researcher and chairman of the Graton Day Labor Center board, wrote in the report that “the future of work paints a grim picture for Sonoma County through 2024 not because there won't be jobs, but because those jobs will be woefully inadequate for workers to provide for their families.

“In other words, job growth is expected to continue reproducing a labor market with a missing middle and fewer and fewer rungs on the ladder for true upward mobility and opportunities for prosperity,” he wrote.

The key findings of the report are:

- More than one in four county residents lives below 200 percent of the local poverty line, or earns $50,000 or less a year, and struggles to pay for basic necessities.

- Low-wage workers are older, with the median age being 33 in 2016. Three out of five low-wage workers are 30 or older, dispelling the myth that such jobs are for teenagers. One in seven of those workers have at least a bachelor's degree.

- Future job growth in the county will be driven by low-wage jobs at restaurants and retailers with about 75 percent of the jobs created between 2014 and 2024 projected to have a median hourly wage of below $20.

- The bottom 20 percent of wage earners in the county have seen their wages drop by double digits in the last four decades.

“The recession officially ended in 2010. But I think there are a lot of folks who are feeling the effects of it,” Guzman said during a presentation at Christ Church United Methodist.

Bill Swindell

Business, Beer and Wine, The Press Democrat  

In the North Coast, we are surrounded by hundreds of wineries along with some of the best breweries, cidermakers and distillers. These industries produce an abundance of drinks as well as good stories – and those are what I’m interested in writing. I also keep my eye on our growing cannabis industry and other agricultural crops, which have provided the backbone for our food-and-wine culture for generations.

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