Close to Home: A county living wage ordinance is a good first step

In December, the Sonoma County Board of Supervisors approved a $15 per hour living-wage ordinance. The legislation will increase wages for approximately 1,200 workers employed by the county and large county contractors — including park aids, animal care, security, janitorial, landscape, mental health, recycling and other low-wage workers.

A coalition of labor, faith, environmental and community organizations originally proposed living wage legislation to the county in September 2014. The coalition appreciates the approval of a living-wage law by the board. Sonoma County now joins six other California counties that have passed living-wage laws.

However, given the extensive changes made by the board and county staff to our proposed law, the adopted legislation falls short of what is needed.

Living-wage laws are intended to address a generation of widening inequality, in particular, the growth of the low-wage workforce.

According to U.S. Census data, the number of California workers earning less than $14 an hour jumped from 22 percent in 1979 to 33 percent in 2014. One-third of Sonoma County's households are working poor — receiving income of less than $47,700 annually for a family of four, with at least one household member reporting income from work.

Working poverty will continue to grow. According to the California Employment Development Department, 40 percent of jobs created from 2010 to 2020 in the county will pay less than $15 an hour.

The California Budget and Policy Project estimates that in Sonoma County, a living wage for two parents working full-time to support two children is $22 per hour, including costs for food, housing, transportation, child care and health care — without relying on any public safety net programs.

The current state minimum wage of $10 an hour is less than half of a living or self-sufficiency wage.

Raising the wage floor is the most effective way to address working poverty. Because state and federal governments have not acted to boost the minimum wage to the level of a living wage, more than 140 cities and counties nationwide have implemented living-wage laws.

Structural reforms occur only when grass-roots movements pressure the state and federal governments from below to enact public policies that address economic inequality, racial, gender and sexual discrimination and environmental protection.

The 'Fight for $15,' is such a grass-roots movement, rooted in strikes by fast food workers starting in New York in 2013, the Occupy encampments of 2011-2012 and the living wage movement that began in 1994 when Baltimore approved the first such law.

The nationwide 'Fight for $15' has dramatically accelerated, and last April 60,000 fast-food, retail, home care and child care workers in 200 cities walked off their jobs demanding $15 an hour.

Since 2014, many cities, including Seattle, San Francisco and Los Angeles have enacted $15-an-hour citywide minimum wage laws that cover all low-wage workers.

Last year, Santa Clara County implemented the highest ($19 per hour) and most comprehensive living-wage law ever, and San Mateo County will soon approve a similar law.

Locally, the supervisors' action was a limited step forward compared to the comprehensive living-wage legislation implemented by Santa Clara, Santa Cruz and San Francisco counties and cities such as Sebastopol, Sonoma and Petaluma. To align with these local jurisdictions and the national 'Fight for $15' movement, the board should expand and amend the recently enacted law.

The county's law exempts four-fifths of the workers that the coalition's proposed legislation would cover, including 4,000 home-care workers who now earn only $11.65 an hour. The county ordinance also eliminates provisions for improving job quality for covered employees by mandating 12 paid sick days; increasing hours for part-time workers who want more, and enacting enforceable protections for workers' right to organize a union.

The November ballot is expected to include a measure to raise the state minimum wage to $15 an hour for all California workers. A recent Field Poll indicates that nearly 70 percent of California voters support the proposition, and it undoubtedly will pass.

Our coalition stands ready to work with the Board of Supervisors to broaden and strengthen the local ordinance to ensure that taxpayer dollars do not fund poverty-wage jobs.

Martin J. Bennett is instructor emeritus of history at Santa Rosa Junior College and co-chairman of North Bay Jobs with Justice. Bleys W. Rose is chairman of the Sonoma County Democratic Party.

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