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Santa Rosa City Council votes to give some workers $15 minimum wage in 2020

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Santa Rosa businesses will have to raise workers’ hourly pay to at least $15 more than a year ahead of the state’s minimum wage schedule, a milestone heralded by workers’ groups as a step toward more livable paychecks that left some local businesses concerned about their own viability.

The Santa Rosa City Council on Tuesday unanimously voted to raise the city minimum wage to $15 for businesses with more than 25 employees by July 1 and, for smaller employers, $14 by July 1 and $15 by 2021. After reaching $15, the local minimum wage would then be adjusted according to the cost of living in the Bay Area — a provision the council approved on the fly by stripping out a 3.5% cap on increases included in the original measure.

The lack of caps and relatively fast climb to $15 make Santa Rosa’s measure more progressive than 2016’s state-approved measure to raise the minimum wage to $15 by 2022 for large businesses and by 2023 for smaller companies.

Though Councilman John Sawyer, a former owner of a small business in Santa Rosa, initially objected to stripping the cost-of-living caps from the bill, he decided to support the faster minimum wage hike, which will need one more vote from the council to pass. Sawyer acknowledged that this proposal may be surprising given his more business-friendly views and that hastening the increase to a $15 minimum wage may indeed endanger some local companies, particularly restaurants, but he said he thought it was the right thing to do for the larger Santa Rosa community.

“The fear that I had gained over the year as a longtime retailer ... was, to me, real,” Sawyer said. “But I also understand those stresses that are happening in our community now. I can’t imagine what it would be like to be a teenager or someone in their early 20s trying to make a go of it in Santa Rosa, given how expensive it is to live here.”

Many in the audience rose to applaud the council’s approval of the ordinance after more than two hours of mostly supportive testimony and discussion amongst officials. A slew of liberal groups representing local Democratic organizations and labor groups turned out to support the faster minimum wage hikes, with some even questioning the sufficiency of a $15 minimum wage.

Former Councilman Lee Pierce, speaking on behalf of the North Bay Black Chamber of Commerce, questioned whether the proposal was “too minimum.”

“I think there are people out there who would argue that the increase to $15 in 2020 might put a few more groceries in the food cart or a little bit more gas in the tank, but it’s not going to touch rent or mortgages,” Pierce said.

Several restaurant owners and business advocates spoke against the measure, generally saying they were not opposed to paying their workers the state-mandated minimum wage but that the accelerated schedule would be tough on their businesses.

“I’m not against $15 an hour, I just don’t want to see it ramped up that quickly,” said Cullen Williamson of Mary’s Pizza Shack in Rohnert Park and the Steele and Hops Public House in Santa Rosa. “You’ve got to give me some time to make some adjustments to my business to be able to adapt to that.”

The initiative was led by North Bay Jobs with Justice, a workers’ rights group, and the North Bay Labor Council, which have been pushing local governments in the North Bay to raise their minimum wages faster and higher. Those efforts — aligning with the goals of other groups like North Bay Organizing Project, which helped drum up support for Santa Rosa’s Tuesday meeting — have led Petaluma and Sonoma to pass more aggressive minimum wage plans of their own.

The issue was an emotional one for Councilman Jack Tibbetts, the executive director of the St. Vincent de Paul Society of Sonoma County. He noted that the higher minimum wage would have a significant impact to businesses and organizations like his own but cited his experience working with people living “penny to penny” in supporting the measure.

“Nobody should have to go through that,” he said.

You can reach Staff Writer Will Schmitt at 707-521-5207 or will.schmitt@pressdemocrat.com.

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