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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.

The California Employment Development Department estimates that between 2016-2026 more than two-thirds of the jobs created in the County will pay less than a livable wage of $23 an hour.

These numbers likely understate the problem of rising inequality in the North Bay. A 2018 study by the University of Pittsburg and Rice University researchers, "Damages Done: The Longitudinal Impacts of Natural Hazards on Wealth Inequality in the United States," indicates that after each natural disaster, regional inequality deepens. Since the Tubbs wildfire in 2017, the County has experienced two more devastating wildfires, including the Kincade Fire in 2019 and the Glass Fire in 2020. In addition, in 2019, one of the largest floods in county history occurred along the lower Russian River, causing an estimated $155 million in damages.

Proposed revisions for the county living wage law

Due to the frequent fires and Covid-19, the County has not annually reviewed or revised the Living Wage Ordinance as North Bay Jobs with Justice and the North Bay Labor Council have requested. These organizations believe that it is essential that the County prioritize—without further delay¬–public policy, like the LWO, that addresses structural inequality and promotes a just and equitable recovery.

When the Board of Supervisors passed the ordinance in 2015, many issues were unresolved and were set aside for further study. The board also omitted several vital provisions proposed by living wage proponents. Moreover, the County is now out of compliance with its law, which requires that Supervisors and staff review the law each year and consider applying a cost-of-living adjustment.

The law currently covers about 1100 workers, including some part-time county workers such as park aides. The majority of workers covered by the ordinance are employed by county contractors -- both for-profit and non-profit. Covered workers include janitors, security guards, landscapers, mental health, transit, and homeless services workers among others.

The North Bay Labor Council, North Bay Jobs with Justice, SEIU 1021, and the Alliance for a Just Recovery propose the following changes to make the law more comprehensive, robust, and effective.

The revised law should include workers at the County airport and the County fair, doubling the number of workers covered. Also, the law should cover new vegetation management and fire protection workers hired with anticipated funding from the federal government. A revised ordinance should further provide all covered workers with 12-days paid sick leave; mandate increased hours for part-time workers who want full-time work; and include a worker retention provision for workers employed by a County contractor whose contract is not renewed.

The ordinance states that the board must consider annually applying a COLA to the living wage rate. Over the last six years, the board has not done so. Proponents request an approximate increase of 13 percent this year (based upon the Bureau of Labor Statistics Bay Area CPI and the annual CPI provided to county employees), raising the Living Wage rate to nearly $17 an hour.

Finally, Supervisors should include a 'responsible bidder' provision to ensure that the County contracts only with firms that have an excellent record of compliance with federal and state labor, health and safety, and environmental law.

For instance, a 2009 report by the National Employment Law Project (NELP) found pervasive violations in low-wage industries such as building services, apparel, and food services. The study concluded that low-wage workers in New York, Los Angeles, and Chicago lost more than $2600 annually due to wage theft. San Francisco, Santa Clara, and San Jose have all implemented responsible bidder policies. The NELP report demonstrates that such a policy protects the public interest and effectively deters wage theft.

The living wage: Racial and gender justice, the environment, and COVID-19

A revised, robust, and expanded LWO will directly address structural inequality and racism as most low-wage workers affected are workers of color, women, and immigrant workers. Revision of the ordinance is also an environmental issue as covered workers will live closer to where they work and not be compelled to commute from more affordable housing markets outside the County. A revised ordinance will also ensure that the County only contracts with the lowest responsible bidders who have an excellent record of compliance with environmental law.

Finally, seven in ten low-wage workers do not have paid sick leave beyond the three days mandated by state law. Workers covered by the LWO are overwhelmingly low-wage essential workers who cannot work remotely. Revising the living wage law to include 12-paid sick days will enable these workers to better cope with future medical emergencies such as Covid-19.

The board will review the ordinance on Tuesday, September 21. Please go to for more information.

Martin J. Bennett is Instructor Emeritus of History at Santa Rosa Junior College and a research and policy analyst for UNITE HERE 2850, a union representing hotel, food service, and gaming workers in the North Bay. He served as co-chair of the Sonoma County Living Wage Coalition between 2000-2015.

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