Close to Home: North Bay needs a $15 minimum wage

President John F. Kennedy described an entire generation’s experience when he proclaimed that “a rising tide lifts all boats.” But despite the ongoing recovery from the Great Recession, the boats of most working people in California today - including in the North Bay - are sinking.|

President John F. Kennedy described an entire generation's experience when he proclaimed that “a rising tide lifts all boats.” But despite the ongoing recovery from the Great Recession, the boats of most working people in California today - including in the North Bay - are sinking.

In response, a movement for raising the minimum wage is emerging in high-cost coastal California communities.

A new report, “The State of Working Sonoma 2018,” shows that inflation-adjusted wages remained flat for the bottom 60 percent of the county's workforce from 1979-2016, while wages for the lowest 20 percent of workers dropped 11 percent.

In addition, 20 percent of county residents and 40 percent of Latino residents belong to working poor families - earning less than $50,000 annually, with at least one member reporting income from work.

That many boats are sinking is further revealed by the stagnation of inflation-adjusted median household income, which in 2016 was lower than the 2005 prerecession level of $70,700.

According to the UC Berkeley Labor Center, more than 30 percent of Sonoma County workers earn less than $14 an hour. That scale of low-wage employment is the fundamental cause of our economic malaise.

The state's minimum wage is $10.50 an hour and will rise to $15 by 2023, but many coastal jurisdictions have accelerated the $15 phase-in to address soaring inequality, the expansion of the working poor and widespread economic insecurity.

San Francisco raised the minimum wage to $15 this year; San Jose and seven other Santa Clara County cities go to $15 in 2019; so do San Mateo, Belmont and Redwood City - with more cities in San Mateo County to follow. In Southern California, the city and county of Los Angeles, Santa Monica, Pasadena and Long Beach adopted $15 by 2020.

North Bay Jobs with Justice proposes that Novato, Petaluma, Santa Rosa, Sebastopol and Sonoma simultaneously approve $15 minimum-wage laws by 2020, with automatic annual inflation adjustments thereafter.

Over time, we will urge other North Bay jurisdictions to do likewise in order to establish a regional minimum wage higher than the state requirement.

Local and state campaigns to raise wages have debunked several myths about minimum-wage workers. First, small businesses don't employ most minimum-wage workers. According to the National Employment Law Project, firms with more than 100 workers employ two-thirds of minimum-wage workers.

Second, most minimum-wage workers aren't teenagers. A new UC Berkeley Labor Center report that workers who would benefit from our proposed legislation are, on average, 33 years old and contribute half of their family's annual income.

The UC economic impact report also finds that the average cumulative annual pay increase for affected North Bay workers would be $2,900 in 2020. Given that median rents increased by 25 percent in Sonoma County between 2000 and 2016, while renters' median annual incomes rose only 9 percent, boosting the minimum wage would immediately make housing more affordable for low-income working families.

Raising the minimum wage would address the “hourglass” economy of coastal California, where the strongest job growth us at the top and the bottom of the labor market while the middle is getting squeezed.

According to California Budget and Policy Project figures for 2017, a living or self-sufficiency wage for two parents in Sonoma County, each working full-time to support two children without relying on public assistance, is $23 an hour.

However, the state Employment Development Department estimates that nearly three-quarters of the jobs created between 2014 and 2024 - mostly in retail, food services, hospitality and waste management industries - will pay less than a livable wage.

Finally, can business adapt? The UC economic impact report analyzed these low-wage industries and found that annual operating costs in the food service and restaurant sector, for example, would increase 2.1 percent by 2020. Nonetheless, employers could adjust to the pay hike by slightly increasing prices and offset a substantial portion of the cost through increased worker retention, skills and productivity and declining costs for training new workers.

Martin J. Bennett is a former instructor at Santa Rosa Junior College and co-chair of North Bay Jobs with Justice.

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