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Santa Rosa won’t delay minimum wage hikes

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Santa Rosa will allow pre-pandemic minimum wage increases to take place in July as scheduled, aligning with requests for advocates for already struggling workers while disappointing some small businesses who fear higher costs on top of the economic damage related to the coronavirus.

The City Council on Tuesday quickly discussed and then unanimously decided to uphold its unanimous October decision to speed up the pace at which local low-wage workers must be paid at least $15 an hour, despite a request from some local restaurants to delay the process because of the COVID-19 crisis, which crippled the economy by shutting down businesses that are only just beginning to reopen.

The minimum wage hikes, which are faster than the state-mandated path to a $15  wage floor by 2023, will continue as planned: Businesses with at least 26 employees must pay employees at least $15 per hour, with smaller employers paying at least $14 per hour, starting July 1. Employers with 25 or fewer workers would have to pay $15 per hour starting in January 2021, and for all employers, future minimum wage increases will be tied to the cost of living in the Bay Area.

The City Council technically didn’t need to take a vote on a course of no action, but it emphasized its position by doing so anyway.

“I think there’s a level of frustration that I have, and I know that other council members have, feeling like this item was brought to us as sort of a ‘Sophie’s Choice,’ ” said Councilman Chris Rogers, referring to a tale about a woman being forced to decide which of her children would die, “because the federal government has absolutely failed to do anything meaningful long-term to both support our workers as well as support our small businesses.”

In early April, the council received a request to rescind the minimum wage from a group of seven members of the local restaurant community — representing Union Hotel Restaurants, Cattlemens Restaurants, Stark Reality Restaurants, La Gare, Chandi Hospitality, Legends at Bennett Valley and Homerun Pizza.

The sender of the letter, Daniel Gonnella of Union Hotel Restaurants, criticized the council’s decision to “kick us while we’re down” and cited reporting Tuesday by Reuters that big fast-food brands would move to expand as the coronavirus leads to the closure of some small businesses.

“I’m extremely disappointed, yet not at all surprised,” Gonnella said in a statement. “It is painfully clear that our city leaders lack an understanding of the very real challenges facing restaurants, or concern for their survival.”

The pandemic made it important for the council to at least consider the matter, said Councilman John Sawyer. He noted that the minimum wage hike was always going to affect some positively and some negatively, or as he put it, “every direction took us to pain.”

The decision came after a litany of left-leaning groups that advocate for workers called on the City Council to support workers who were already facing economic insecurity before the pandemic limited or eliminated their jobs and their ability to bring home a paycheck. Some also asked for emergency paid sick leave as a tool to allow ill people to stay home and avoid infecting others, as opposed to feeling forced to work in order to make ends meet.

“Low-wage workers are the backbone of Sonoma County’s economy, and their labor fuels our whole existence here in Sonoma County,” said Christy Lubin of the Graton Day Labor Center. Low-wage workers need as much money as they can get to pay rent and pay back debts they may have incurred during shelter-in-place, she added.

Brian Ling, executive director of the pro-business Sonoma County Alliance, noted that the restaurant industry was likely to be most affected by the minimum wage hikes even before the pandemic. Governments have tried to curb the pandemic’s spread with bans on dining in, forcing restaurants to rely on takeout and delivery.

“While I acknowledge the individual employee needs, if restaurants are forced to close, then nobody gets any payroll, regardless of what the minimum wage is,” Ling said. He asked the council to delay the increase or better yet follow the state’s law, which charts a slower path to $15 but allows cities to choose to get there sooner.

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

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