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Sonoma County supervisors show tentative support for living wage expansion

Emma Murphy

Jun 13, 2023

Elected officials, labor advocates and local businesses have hotly debated for years if and how the county’s policy should be expanded to include more local workers

Employees of businesses contracting with Sonoma County could see a wage increase under a proposed expansion of the county’s living wage ordinance.

The county’s living wage policy outlines minimum pay and benefits for the lowest paid county employees and employees of county contractors. The current rate is set to increase by 2.2% to $17.65 this July.

Sonoma County is among a number of municipalities around the state that have adopted rules governing base wages for their lowest paid workers and government contractors. The county implemented the ordinance in 2016, however the board did not adopt its first rate increase until December 2021 and has since been playing catch up with the rising cost of living.

Elected officials, labor advocates and local businesses have hotly debated for years if and how the county’s policy should be expanded to include more people, such as those working for tenants and concessionaires at the Charles M. Schulz-Sonoma County Airport and Sonoma County Fair.

The Board of Supervisors resumed that discussion Tuesday, when a majority of members indicated support for expanding the policy to all businesses either renting facilities or providing concessionary services to the county or on county grounds.

“We have lost huge chunks of the middle class and they’re going in the wrong direction,” said board Chair Chris Coursey. “The number of poor in our country is going up, the number of rich is going up, but the number of people who can just live on their wages is going down.”

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In a series of straw votes, four the board’s five members indicated they would support expanding the ordinance to cover all lessees and concessionaires at the county who employ 25 or more people and who make $350,000 in gross receipts annually.

Supervisor David Rabbitt did not support the specific criteria outlining who would covered under any expansion. He cited concerns that it would be too burdensome for the county to effectively enforce and could have unintended consequences such as driving businesses elsewhere.

“I don’t think it’s going to be enforceable,” Rabbitt said, calling the proposed change “a feel-good piece” with “1,001 loopholes.”

Becky Bartling, CEO of the Sonoma County Fair, Airport Manager Jon Stout and Marlon Young, a member of the airport’s aviation commission, all raised concerns that the proposal, if adopted, would drive away businesses.

Bartling said the this year’s fair stands to have 30% less vendors at its Grace Pavilion given a reduction in vendors industrywide and the cost of traveling to Sonoma County.

Bartling asked the board not to include concessionaires and lessees in the updated policy.

Young told the board the changes may lead some businesses, such as car rentals to move off-site, costing the airport some income. He added that a fuel operator indicated it would no longer hire short-term employees or withdraw the flight training program it offers those employees should the policy go through.

A three-member majority — Rabbitt, Supervisor Lynda Hopkins and Supervisor James Gore — supported attaching any cost of living adjustment to the Bay Area Consumer Price Index for All Urban Consumers, but without a cap, allowing the board to have a discretionary review.

In other straw votes, the board unanimously supported: implementing a four-year review schedule to allow the board adjust the wage rate separate from the annual cost of living increase, and allowing covered employees to earn at least one hour of paid time off per 20 hours worked with a cap of 12 days per year.

Labor advocates speaking in support of the policy expansion dominated the meeting’s public comment period.

Speakers, including from North Bay Jobs with Justice, the Service Employees International Union, North Bay Labor Council and Legal Aid of Sonoma County, noted that Sonoma County’s high cost of living was pushing people out of their homes and the county.

“Cost of living just keeps increasing, wages aren’t keeping up,” Aura Aguilar, an organizer for North Bay Jobs with Justice, said referring to costs of rent, child care, transportation and food.

Margaret DeMatteo, a housing policy attorney with Legal Aid of Sonoma County, added that failure to pay rent was the primary cause of local evictions.

“We’re living through a housing crisis primarily around affordability,” DeMatteo said. “This crisis puts the heaviest burden on low wage renters.”

The amended policy could come back to the board for a possible vote in late summer.

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