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Sonoma County supervisors to consider a hike in ‘living wage’ rate

Despite loving his job and realizing its importance, Sonoma County Regional Parks aide, Michael Stanford finds it tough to make ends meet in a region known for its high housing and cost of living.

That’s even after working nine years and receiving raises for his work picking up trash and cleaning the bathrooms all over the north side of the county.

So on Tuesday, he’s planning to be there when the Sonoma County Board of Supervisors is set to take up a proposal by pro-labor groups to increase the county’s “living wage” to $17.08 an hour from $15.

Not to be confused with minimum wage, a living wage ordinance applies to county employees and large contractors, which number more than 1,000 in that category as of 2015, along with firms the local government assists and subsidizes.

Stanford, 30, started his job at a full-time level making $13.29 an hour almost a decade ago. At the time, he worked two jobs, including a dish washing gig at a Guerneville resort, while he attended school at Santa Rosa Junior College. He received a degree in history but also studied natural resources where his passion lies.

“There were times I’d get home at 1 o’clock in the morning,” he said.

For years, Stanford has endured backbreaking work, picking up after others and cleaning their waste.

“Unfortunately, we live in a disposable mindset and society,” he said, adding the problem has escalated recently with the coronavirus outbreak sending many people to congregate outside in open spaces.

“With COVID going on, it makes me more fearful. Not everybody wears masks. I think about that when I go in and clean the bathrooms,” he said.

The parks department experienced a 40% jump in traffic last summer.

“May through September is our busy time. After that, the hours fall off like a cliff,” said Stanford, who’s now working part-time because the county reduced his hours.

And if he or his cohorts get sick, they only get six days of paid leave a year. Pro labor organizations such as the North Bay Jobs with Justice are pushing to double that number.

In some respects, Stanford can say county work is in his blood as a second-generation county employee. He has followed in the footsteps of his father, who worked as a plumber — first independently, then with the county.

“That saved us (as a family),” he said of the government job.

As an adult, Stanford had advocated for higher wages with that same county as his father, including leading the charge to unionize certain job classifications in his department.

The county has met this crossroads before. In 2015, it adopted a living wage ordinance set at $15 an hour.

Sonoma County cities have also adopted living wage standards through the years. For workers without benefits, Petaluma established its living wage of $18.94 an hour in 2006. Sebastopol’s is $19.65, while the city of Sonoma established one in 2004 at $15 ($13.50 with benefits).

Napa County has no living wage ordinance. Calls to the county have been unreturned.

Marin County Assistant County Administrator Dan Eilerman said the board of supervisors plans to address the topic in November. In 2002, the county set the living wage at $15.40 per hour for those without benefits.

Eilerman said typically, the county raises the level to coincide with the consumer price index that goes into effect at the beginning of each year.

In Sonoma County, North Bay Jobs for Justice is focusing an effort to expand the reach of the current wage ordinance to those not covered by it now, including Sonoma County Fair’s 27 temporary employees as well as businesses operating at the county-owned Charles M. Schulz airport.

When asked if it’s the right time to revisit an increased expense for the business community and local governments that are subsidized by taxpayers during an economic havoc-wreaking pandemic, North Bay Jobs with Justice founder Marty Bennett said elevating wages helps communities.

“When wages are bumped up, (the workers) spend them in the local economy,” he told the Business Journal. “All the research tells us that when we bump low-income wages, there’s a greater retention of employees, and it improves the quality of services.”

As long as statistics like those coming out of the U.S. Census Bureau dictating that one in 10 Sonoma County residents live in poverty and a United Way report highlighted by the Business Journal on Nov. 30, 2020 revealing one-third of Californians represent the working poor, pro-labor groups like Bennett’s question whether a community can afford not to elevate a growing low-income population and disappearing middle class. A United Way report indicated that Sonoma County’s “living wage” is $23 per hour.

Bennett said the group is not asking supervisors to boost the wage to $23 per hour because it would be politically challenging to do so.

The business community may support the idea of a living wage, Windsor Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Beth Henry pointed out.

“Employers are perfectly aware of how important it is to pay workers a livable wage, but whether they can afford to remains the question,” she said.

The concern may lie with whether the added costs will be passed down to consumers in the form of, for example, ticket prices at the fair.

However, thresholds exist in the Sonoma County Living Wage Ordinance (LWO) proposal that serve to shield small businesses from added burdens of operating in a commercial environment littered with obstacles.

Here are some of the exemptions:

  • Nonprofits with under 25 employees and government contracts less than $50,000 per year.
  • For-profit organizations with fewer than six employees and contracts of less than $25,000 per year.
  • State and federal employees.

Susan Wood covers law, cannabis, production, biotech, energy, transportation, agriculture as well as banking and finance. For 25 years, Susan has worked for a variety of publications including the North County Times, now a part of the Union Tribune in San Diego County, along with the Tahoe Daily Tribune and Lake Tahoe News. She graduated from Fullerton College. Reach her at 530-545-8662 or susan.wood@busjrnl.com

Editor’s Note: An earlier version of the story incorrectly reported the per hour “living wage” the group, North Bay Jobs with Justice, plans to ask Sonoma County supervisors to approve Tuesday. The correct amount is $16.90 per hour. The other hourly rate reported earlier version of the story is the “living wage” set for Sonoma County in a United Way of California study.

Editor’s note: This story has been changed. The group, North Bay Jobs with Justice, is planning to discuss a revision of Sonoma County’s Living Wage ordinance before the board of supervisors on Tuesday that will ask the board increase the hourly rate to $17.08. Because of incorrect information provided by a representative of the group, an earlier version of the story reported an incorrect figure

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