Workers’ rights group urges pay raises for Sonoma County in-home care workers

A recently formed workers’ rights group composed of labor advocates and union supporters on Saturday issued a broad set of recommendations urging the Sonoma County Board of Supervisors to increase pay for thousands of in-home caregivers to $15 per hour, as well as expand their health care benefits.

The group, called the North Bay Workers’ Rights Board, called for a hearing to draw attention to the financial and workplace hardships faced by Sonoma County’s roughly 5,000 in-home caregivers, who currently earn $11.65 per hour.

Saturday’s action, which drew roughly 75 people to the Christ Church United Methodist in Santa Rosa, mirrored the message of the relentless campaign by union officials and labor activists pushing for higher pay for in-home caregivers. Activists are putting political pressure on supervisors in hopes of convincing them to include in-home caregivers in the county’s proposed ?living-wage ordinance.

“We want to make invisible workers visible and let the Board of Supervisors know that home care workers deserve $15 per hour,” said Marty Bennett, co-chair of North Bay Jobs with Justice, which is spearheading its own living-wage campaign that would cover a total of about 5,500 county-affiliated workers.

“Supervisors have said they want to handle pay raises during contract negotiations, but that’s not going well. What they’ve offered is completely unacceptable,” Bennett said.

Supervisors in June voiced support for boosting pay to $15 per hour for about 920 nonprofit employees and other county-affiliated workers hired under county contracts. They did not include in-home caregivers in their draft ordinance, saying they want to handle pay and benefits negotiations at the bargaining table.

Board of Supervisors Chairwoman Susan Gorin shelved the draft ordinance earlier this month following vehement public protests by labor groups and closed-door meetings with activists pushing for a broader living-wage ordinance. Gorin cited the need for more time to analyze the impact on nonprofit groups who would be required to raise pay for their employees hired under county contracts, as well as workers who would be left out of the county’s proposal.

Gorin on Friday reaffirmed her stance that the discussion about pay and benefits belongs in labor negotiations.

“Sonoma County, and other communities, are having the discussion about how to compensate them fairly for their time and the important responsibility of caring for the elderly and disabled, but they are represented by a union,” Gorin said. “We’re hopeful that we can boost their wages, but how to get there - I’m not sure. It could have an enormous impact to the county general fund.”

The county’s first offer includes a 20-cent hourly pay raise over the next four years, for a total of $11.85 per hour, according to union officials.

Saturday’s hearing marked the second action by the North Bay Workers’ Rights Board since it was formed last year. In January, the group took up the contentious issue of locked contract negotiations between the Petaluma City Schools board and its superintendent.

“We want to provide a public forum for workers to come and voice their concerns about workplace conditions, and put a spotlight on injustices and problems workers are facing,” said Matt Myres, chairman of the group.

Now at issue is negotiations between the county and in-home support workers. Saturday’s event featured testimony from workers and union officials. It is the latest and most public demonstration in the campaign to raise wages for in-home caregivers. Many workers said they were forced to choose on a monthly basis between paying the rent or paying other bills.

“On the wages we’re making, I have to decide ‘This month, do I pay the electric bill or do I feed my family?’?” said Bonita Muñoz, a Sonoma County in-home caregiver.

Sharon Allen, a caregiver who serves four clients in Rohnert Park, also spoke about her financial difficulty.

“I want to do better for myself, and I don’t want to stay on Medi-Cal,” Allen said, referring to the state low-income health care program. “I’m fighting for a better wage because it’s important for me and all the others like me.”

Bennett and others characterized $11.65 per hour as “poverty wages” in Sonoma County. He pointed to demographic and income statistics compiled by North Bay Jobs with Justice, a coalition of union and community groups, that found roughly 1,500 caregivers are on Medi-Cal or another form of taxpayer-funded public assistance, such as food stamps.

“That’s completely unacceptable,” Bennett said.

Following more than two hours of testimony on Saturday, the six-member Workers Rights’ Board issued seven recommendations it plans to take to the Board of Supervisors, which is slated to take up the issue again in November. The recommendations include covering in-home caregivers in the county’s living-wage ordinance and raising their pay to $15 per hour; granting health benefits to caregivers who work enough hours to qualify; increasing training opportunities; and recognizing in-home caregivers as official county employees.

At present, caregivers are considered quasi-county employees, governed by a public authority agency created by the Board of Supervisors in 2001. A 2013 decision in a Sonoma County Superior Court case concluded that the county and the public authority are joint employers for in-home caregivers.

“It seems to me the responsibility falls to the county … for compensation,” said Raymond Decker, a member of the Workers’ Rights Board.

The county is currently in contract negotiations with the union representing in-home caregivers. The union, which was recently formed to represent in-home support workers across California, has called the county’s offer “criminal.”

County negotiators offered caregivers a 10-cent hourly pay raise by 2017 and another 10-cent raise by 2019, according to David Werlin, one of the union’s negotiators for the new Service Employees International Union Local 2015. Werlin said the county also has proposed eliminating the private health insurance benefit.

“What they should be talking about is how to provide benefits for those who need them,” Werlin said. “Instead, they are talking about how they can eliminate them.”

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

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