Supervisors to review county living wage ordinance
The Board of Supervisors will soon review and revise the County's living wage ordinance (LWO) which it had approved in 2015. Such a review is long overdue. All County residents concerned with economic, racial, and environmental justice should be concerned. What is an LWO, and why does it matter?
A living wage ordinancerequires that the County, county contractors, and firms receiving county economic development assistance pay their employees a livable or self-sufficiency wage.
A living wage for Sonoma County is $23 an hour, according to the United Way of California Household Budget Calculator, for two parents employed full-time to support two children without relying on government assistance such as Food Stamps or Medicaid. To make ends meet, such a household must earn $93,336 annually to pay for rent, food, child care, transportation, taxes, and health care.
The taxpayers subsidize employers that pay less than a living wage. In 2015 the UCB Labor Center estimated that the federal and state governments provide $153 billion annually in public subsidies such as Medicaid, Aid to Needy Families (TANF), and Food Stamps (SNAP) to workers who earn low wages and lack benefits.
Why the living wage movement?
Since the mid-1990s, more than 120 cities and counties nationwide have approved LWOs, including 43 local jurisdictions in high-cost coastal California. In Sonoma County, the City of Sebastopol passed an LWO in 2003. Subsequently, the City of Sonoma approved an LWO in 2004, followed by Petaluma in 2006. Each city has indexed its Living Wage rate to the Department of Labor Bay Area Consumer Price Index. The City of Sebastopol Living Wage rate is now $19.65 an hour.
The California legislature in 1913 and Congress in 1938 were first to implement the minimum wage laws. The state and the federal government intended that the minimum wage be raised over time to become an actual livable wage. States may set their minimum wage higher than the federal government, and 30 states and the District of Columbia have done so. In California and many other states in the North and West, cities and counties may enact their own minimum wage higher than the state's. But neither our state nor the federal government have raised their minimum to become an actual livable wage based upon true living costs. The federal minimum wage is $7.25 an hour, and Congress has not raised it since 2009. California in 2016 increased the state's minimum wage from $9 to $15 an hour to be phased in by 2023.
California was the first state to approve a $15 minimum and require an annual adjustment based upon the cost of living. Since 2016 nine other states have raised their minimum wage to a phased-in $15 an hour and indexed their minimum to the cost of living. Last November, Florida voters approved a ballot initiative raising that state's minimum to $15 an hour by 2026.
Living Wage proponents maintain that when public spending creates jobs, the local government must ensure that such jobs pay a living wage, provide decent benefits, and protect workers' rights. The County of Sonoma is the largest employer and contractor in the North Bay. Improving wages and job quality for county and county contractors' employees will spill over to impact the private sector. Employers providing these same services in the private sector will need to offer comparable wages and benefits to retain workers.
Growing inequality in California and Sonoma County
The living wage movement has developed in response to unprecedented income inequality and the vast increase of low-wage work. Across California, according to the California Budget and Policy Project, economic inequality has skyrocketed over the last three decades. Between 1987 and 2017 (the most recent year for which California Franchise Tax Board data is available), the average inflation-adjusted incomes for the top 1 percent of California families soared by 134 percent, while the incomes of the bottom 40 percent plunged by 16 percent.
According to a 2021 report by the United Way of California, more than one-third of California households are working poor (with at least one member reporting income from employment) and do not earn sufficient income to make ends meet. For Sonoma County, 26 percent of the County's households earn less than the United Way’s self-sufficiency threshold, including 53 percent of Latino households and 19 percent of white households.
According to the most recent U. S. Census data, inflation-adjusted wages from 1980-2018 were flat or dropped for the bottom 60 percent of Sonoma County’s workforce, while wages for the top 10 percent increased by 28 percent. Simultaneously low-wage workers experience falling wages and rising rents. From 2000-2018 gross annual rents rose by 25 percent, but annual renter incomes grew by just 2 percent. Consequently, many live in overcrowded housing and may be displaced to more affordable housing markets outside the County.