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Close to Home: Sonoma County’s living wage law needs an overhaul

Marty Bennett - Press Democrat
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The views and opinions expressed in this commentary are those of the author and don’t necessarily reflect The Press Democrat editorial board’s perspective. The opinion and news sections operate separately and independently of one another.

The Board of Supervisors passed a living wage ordinance in 2015, requiring that the county and large contractors pay workers $15 an hour. The law also mandates that the board annually consider applying a cost-of-living adjustment. Moreover, the supervisors instructed staff to meet with advocates to develop language for additional provisions.

Five years, three fires, and one flood later, the board will soon complete its deliberations.

By revising the law, the supervisors can make the county, the largest employer and contractor in the North Bay, a model employer and demonstrate their commitment to addressing structural inequality and systemic racism in the labor market.

Since 1995, more than 120 cities and counties nationwide, including Sebastopol, Sonoma, Petaluma and 40 others in California, have enacted living wage laws in response to soaring inequality and the vast expansion of low-wage employment. Fundamental to this movement is the principle that taxpayer funding should not create poverty-wage jobs. Every resident deserves a wage that enables them to support their families without relying on government assistance.

In Sonoma County, according to United Way of California, a living wage is $23 an hour for two parents, each working full-time to support two children and pay for rent, health care, food, child care, transportation and taxes.

The most recent census data show that between 1980 and 2018, inflation-adjusted wages stagnated or declined for the bottom 60% of workers in the county. For the bottom 20%, wages dropped by more than 10%. Then, between 2000 and 2018, gross annual rents climbed 25%, but renter incomes grew by just 2% a year.

Thus, low-wage workers across are struggling to make ends meet.

They face housing overcrowding, eviction, displacement and homelessness, compounded by COVID. Disproportionately, low-income, Latinos and other minorities are most impacted by economic dislocation and COVID.

Consequently, a broad coalition of labor, environmental and faith-based organizations has called for an overhaul of the ordinance to account for inflation, expand its reach and include paid sick leave.

Minimum wage purchasing power has eroded over time because neither Congress nor the state legislature has required an automatic annual cost of living adjustment. Applying a six-year COLA would boost the living wage in Sonoma County to more than $17 an hour. Sebastopol, which since 2004 has annually approved a COLA, now has a living wage of $21.57 an hour.

The county ordinance currently affects 1,100 workers employed by the county and large county contractors. Proponents urge that the board expand coverage to include the county fair and airport — potentially doubling the number of workers affected.

Nearly all of these workers — janitorial, landscaping, mental health, park aides, transit, security and homeless services workers — are essential workers who cannot work from home. The majority are workers of color, women and new immigrants.

A revised ordinance should include 12 paid sick days annually for covered workers; a more robust worker-retention provision for employees of a county contractor whose contract is not renewed; and a responsible bidder provision mandating that large contractors maintain an excellent record of compliance with federal and state labor, health and safety and environmental laws.

It is also crucial to recognize the effect of our local campaigns on state and national minimum wage policy. After 2012 fast-food worker strikes in New York demanding $15 an hour and a union, living wage campaigns merged into the national “Fight for $15.”

The Fight for $15 has exposed deplorable conditions for low-wage workers and helped shift public opinion to pressure state legislatures to raise minimum wages. As a result, beginning with California in 2016, 11 states and the District of Columbia, representing 40% of the U.S. workforce, have boosted their minimum wage to $15 an hour, and most mandate an annual COLA.

According to a recent Pew Research Center poll, 62% of Americans favor raising the current $7.25 an hour federal minimum wage to $15 an hour. President Joe Biden supports the Raise the Wage Act to increase the federal minimum to $15 by 2025. If the Democrats enlarge their majorities in the Senate and House during the 2022 midterms, they will undoubtedly enact a $15 federal minimum wage.

Martin J. Bennett is a research and policy associate for UNITE HERE Local 2850.