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Living Wage Ordinance 

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Fair Play

Sonoma may become the next city to pass a living wage ordinance

By Ellen Bicheler

Sonoma is poised to become the next city in the United States to pass a living wage ordinance when the city council next meets on Wednesday, July 7. Three out of the five councilmembers--the majority required for passage--said during a heated debate at the recent June 2 Sonoma City Council meeting that they intend to support the measure.

"In my 10 years of serving on the council, I have taken great pleasure in providing millions of dollars of assistance to Sonoma businesses," councilman Larry Barnett said. "I take equal pleasure in assisting other important segments of the Sonoma community through the adoption of the living wage."

Since 1988, 121 cities across America, from New York to San Francisco, have passed living wage ordinances. The Santa Rosa City Council declined to pass a living wage ordinance in 2001, but the movement, pushed locally by the Living Wage Coalition of Sonoma County, has subsequently gained steam. Sebastopol passed a living wage ordinance last year, and approval seems all but certain in Sonoma.

Joining Barnett in supporting the measure were Sonoma City councilmembers Ken Brown and Joe Costello; councilmembers Doug McKesson and Dick Ashford pledge to vote against the measure.

Proponents for living wages say such laws are an investment in the community, helping level the playing field for full-time workers in the public sector and injecting cash into local economies as higher wages provide more spending money. Opponents point to already strapped city, state and federal budgets, and question whether local governments should take such an active role in the economy.

"The cost estimate for implementing the living wage ordinance is $118,000," said Sonoma city manager Mike Fuson, who opposes the move. The measure would cover seven administrative and maintenance employees and 40 part-time emergency medical technicians and paramedics employed by the city. Ten employees of the Sonoma Valley Visitor's Center are also eligible for a wage hike if it passes. Volunteer firefighters are exempt.

The 57 beneficiaries will receive pay raises to $11.70 an hour with benefits or $13.20 an hour without benefits. The EMTs are slated to receive $13.20 an hour and the paramedics a $15.20 hourly rate. Compensated time off is also included.

Jennifer Yankovich, executive director of the Sonoma Valley Chamber of Commerce, opposes the ordinance. "Living wage mandates adopted in other cities have been found to bring a variety of detrimental, unintended consequences to local economies including loss of jobs, loss of services by nonprofit organizations and loss of local businesses," she says. Her biggest concern is "that of timing. Allocating even a fraction of this projected cost into the hands of a mandated few does not serve the best interest of the residents of the city."

Barnett disagrees, saying he hasn't seen any evidence supporting the claim of "detrimental consequences" caused by living wage laws. Another member of the Sonoma Valley Chamber of Commerce, Leslie Sheridan, president of Added Edge Inc., also disputes the chamber's stance.

"There's a lot of talk about the cost of business and the cost to the city," she says. "What about the cost to the people who are scraping by, who are our service providers in our community, who are serving us every single day of the week? Will Sonoma put fear and greed over moral and social responsibilities?"

Dr. Peter Hall, one of the researchers who prepared a report on the impact of the ordinance for the city, explains why proponents of such measures feel they're necessary.

"Living wages attempt, at the local level, to make up some of the ground lost by the decline in the real value of the minimum wage," he says. "The reason why the living wage movement has caught so much attention is that it proceeds from the fundamentally American ideal that anyone willing and able to do an honest day's work should not live in poverty."

While agreeing with that ideal, councilman McKesson questions how Sonoma might best meet it.

"I would like people to get paid more," he stresses. "I just don't think we should legislate it on the city level. Our focus should be on job training and skills and education."

But another Sonoma Valley Chamber of Commerce member, local businessman Patrick Wofford, points out that by not promoting a living wage, Sonoma ends up spending more money on public services.

"If we don't pay a living wage, we're subsidizing businesses," he says. "We end up subsidizing the healthcare, housing and food workers are unable to pay for."

Wofford's statements are supported by a UC Berkeley Center for Labor Research and Education study that found food stamps, Medi-Cal, emergency-room services and childcare benefits provided by federal and state governments to families in which at least one member was employed full-time totaled more than $10 billion in 2002.

For Marty Bennett, co-chair of the Living Wage Coalition of Sonoma County, 2004 has been an encouraging year.

"There has been an exciting grassroots campaign and public dialogue in the Sonoma Valley over the past year," he says. Founded in 2000, the coalition is supported by the League of Women Voters of Sonoma County, the Sonoma County Conservation Action, the Sonoma County Land Use and Transportation Coalition and the Housing Advocacy Group, as well as many churches and synagogues.

The Rev. Norman Cram, a retired U.S. Navy chaplain and Sonoma resident, sympathizes with low-wage earners. A member of the local interfaith community, he interacts with a half-dozen Jewish and Christian congregations and says support for the living wage is increasing.

"There is a growing awareness that living the golden rule includes not just charity but also a change in the economic system, so that more of God's wage earners in the Sonoma Valley can achieve the dignity of economic self-sufficiency through their hard work," Cram says. "The grass roots support of faith communities was reflected in the large number of families who planted 'We Support a Living Wage' signs in their yards. More than altruism, congregates recognize that reducing poverty among poorly paid workers increases quality of life for all."

Next up is Petaluma, where the coalition and the North Bay Labor Council successfully persuaded the Petaluma Sheraton to adopt a living wage policy in 2000. In exchange, the hotel received $2.75 million dollars in loans and tax abatements from the city.

"The Petaluma Sheraton represents the emergence of accountable public subsidy policy on the North Coast," Bennett says. As part of the 2000 living wage agreement, the hotel management agreed not to interfere if employees decided to form a union. However, the hotel has since changed hands, and the result of an election held in May to determine whether nonmanagement employees will join Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees Local 2850 is contentious, with both sides claiming foul play.

Sheraton employee Barbara McWilliams supports the union and the higher wages it will bring. "A living wage is necessary to live in Petaluma," she says. "All we're asking for is to be paid fairly. I'm a single mother and was paying $375 a month for our health insurance, over a quarter of my wages."

Other upcoming living wage issues in Petaluma include the proposed expansion of the Outlet Mall. At the Petaluma City Council meeting this June 21, the Living Wage Coalition's Eileen Morris noted that the environmental impact report for the mall's expansion fails to take into account the downside of creating yet more low-wage jobs.

But this coming week, all eyes will be on Sonoma.

"I got elected as a working person to protect working people," said Sonoma City councilmember Ken Brown at the June 2 meeting. "It's imperative that the city of Sonoma takes the lead and passes this ordinance. As elected officials, we need to set an example and a standard for others. In doing this, I can go to sleep when I go to bed at night."

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From the July 7-13, 2004 issue of the North Bay Bohemian.

© Metro Publishing Inc.

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