Sonoma City Council eyes $15 minimum wage

Get ready to punch the clock, local minimum wage earners – the City of Sonoma is thinking about giving you a raise.

That’s where it stood at the close of the Feb. 4 meeting of the Sonoma City Council, when council members voted 5-0 to form a minimum-wage subcommittee to work with city staff to develop an ordinance that would raise the minimum wage in Sonoma to $15 an hour by 2020.

Currently, the state minimum wage is $12 per hour for businesses with more than 25 employees and $11 for businesses smaller than that. According to City of Sonoma figures, of the 1,028 businesses in Sonoma, between 35 and 45 percent have between 2 and 25 employees; 5 percent have more than 25 employees.

Critics have said such wages are part of what prevents the most modest earners from living in higher-priced areas like Sonoma.

“Our economy is in jeopardy if we can’t figure out how to get people to live here,” said Mayor Amy Harrington, who framed the proposed wage hike as part of a broader effort to make the city more affordable to live in. “I think of the minimum wage as a leg of the affordable housing bundle.”

It was Harrington who a year ago had initially called for the council to examine increasing the city minimum wage at a more accelerated rate than the state’s current plan to incrementally raise the wage floor to $15 by 2023.

Since then, several North Bay municipalities have initiated talks about increasing their minimum wages to $15 by 2020.

The recent impetus to raise minimum wages has come from a variety of directions -- a combination of rising housing prices, wage stagnation and the state’s $15-by-2023 wage mandate. But the local effort to accelerate the increase has gotten a push from a group called North Bay Jobs with Justice (NBJJ), a county-based labor coalition of 20 unions and other local organizations affiliated with a national network of labor groups.

Sonoma resident Marty Bennett, the co-chair of North Bay Jobs with Justice, addressed the city council Monday, saying that raising the minimum wage was the fastest way to make housing more affordable.

“More than 30 percent of Sonoma County workers earn less than $14 an hour,” said Bennett at the meeting. “The spread of low-wage employment is one of the fundamental causes for levels of inequality not experiences in the county since the Great Depression.”

Bennett told the Index-Tribune that his group is working simultaneously with six North Bay communities – Sonoma, Novato, Petaluma, Sebastopol, Cotati and Santa Rosa – in the hopes that a synchronized raising of the wage floor would level the playing field for employees and employers throughout the region, making the transition to a higher wage easier for all. Of those six cities, only Santa Rosa has yet to schedule a study session on its minimum wage, said Bennett.

NBJJ’s proposal to the six cities calls for a $12.50 an hour minimum wage by July 1, 2019 and a $15 wage by July 1, 2020. Cost of living increases would be applied beginning July 1, 2121. An exemption would be made for what the group calls “learners,” those who have no prior experience in a given occupation, and they could be paid at 85 percent of the minimum wage for a period of 160 days.

As part of Monday’s “study session” with the council, Ian Perry, a researcher with the UC Berkeley Labor Center, presented an NBJJ-commissioned report on the economic impacts of a $15 minimum wage in the North Bay.

Perry said that based on Sonoma making up about 1 percent of the North Bay workforce, an estimated 2,000 workers in the city would benefit from the $15 minimum wage – resulting in an average of $3,000 more a year in earnings.

According to the report, 94 percent of the workers receiving raises would be over 19 years old; 60 percent would be “workers of color.” The top three industries affected would be retail, at 17 percent of workers in the county; food services at 13 percent; and health services at 8 percent.

According to the Labor Center report, the industry whose workers stand to benefit the most is food services, where 61.5 percent of the workforce earns less than $15 an hour. By comparison, the industry with the second highest benefit to its workforce is waste-management services, in which 55.8 percent of its workers earn less than $15 an hour, according to the study.

The effects on food-service businesses, according to the study, include a 2.1 percent in costs to restaurant owners, resulting in a 1 percent increase in menu prices.

Perry said that most credible wage studies show that the effect minimum wage increases have on restaurant employment is so small that it “cannot be statistically distinguished from no effect at all.”

While that may seem “counterintuitive,” said Perry, he explained that the burden of higher wages to businesses is offset by such benefits as lower turnover, a more experienced and productive staff and an infusion of money into the local economy as low-wage workers spend their raises at local retail and food services businesses.

Most community members in attendance at the meeting expressed their support for the $15 minimum wage, many agreeing it didn’t go far enough.

Tom Woods, a county-based spokesperson for the Teamsters union described it as “a question of morality.”

Valley resident Fred Allebach urged the council to pass the wage ordinance “as soon as possible,” saying that “Sonoma has been business friendly, it’s time to be labor friendly.”

“I haven’t seen trickle down work,” quipped Allebach. “This is ‘ripple up.’”

Two owners of downtown restaurants raised a question about whether workers who received tips from customers should be included in the wage increase. Sondra Bernstein, of the Girl & the Fig, and Saul Gropman, of Café LaHaye, called for a “tip credit,” which would allow them to count tips paid by customers as part of an employee’s wages, exempting businesses from having to pay servers and bartenders above the state minimum wage.

City Attorney Jeff Walter was unsure whether a tip credit would be allowed under state law; the proposal put forth by North Bay Jobs with Justice states clearly, “No tip credit.”

The City Council, for the most part, was open to hearing more about the North Bay Jobs with Justice proposal. Councilmember Logan Harvey noted that in the last election he had campaigned for a higher minimum wage. “(One of the) roles of government and society in general is to make sure the next generation has the opportunity to survive,” said Harvey.

Councilmember David Cook was more cautious, calling for a “regional effort.”

“When I hear that Sonoma can be this great thing and jump out first,” Cook said, “that’s usually the one that gets run over.”

After agreeing to create a minimum-wage subcommittee to draft a proposal, the council named Harrington and Harvey to the subcommittee, with Harrington saying they’d use the NBJJ proposal as a starting point.

This isn’t the City Council’s first minimum-wage rodeo. In September of 2014, the City Council voted 3-2 to study the creation of a local minimum wage. But two months later, following the election of Councilmembers Madolyn Agrimonti, Gary Edwards and Rachel Hundley, the makeup of the council changed and the minimum wage was no longer an expressed priority, according to city staff.

Agrimonti addressed the four-year lack of progress at Monday’s meeting:

“Back to why we didn’t get to it,” said Agrimonti. “I can’t tell you how busy it’s been the last two years. It’s been speed. And I’m not making excuses. There’s no room. We were meeting on average two to three times per month.”

Agrimonti stressed that she “believes this is very important.”

“But I have more questions now than when I started out,” she said. “I look forward to learning more.”

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