Council OKs ‘accelerated’ minimum wage

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Sonoma’s lowest paid employees are about to get a raise.

That’s because the Sonoma City Council on Monday moved to ratchet up its minimum wage beyond the state’s timetable to bring the minimum hourly rate to $15.

The state has been raising its minimum wage in yearly increments since 2017, when legislators approved a plan to raise the wage floor for large employers to $15 by 2022, and all other employers by 2023. The current minimum wage is $12 an hour – but many in Sonoma have argued that the higher cost of living in the city warrants paying workers at a rate above the state minimum.

A combination of rising housing prices and wage stagnation has made residing in Sonoma nearly untenable for many of the city’s lowest-income workers.

Under the council’s plan, Sonoma’s minimum wage would beat the state to $15 by six months and reach $16 across the board in June of 2023 – a dollar more per hour than the state minimum is expected to be at that time.

“This is something we have to do in Sonoma,” said City Councilmember Rachel Hundley, who created the timetable the council ultimately approved. “Everybody’s feeling really squeezed.”

It was Councilmember Amy Harrington who a year ago initially called for the council to examine increasing the city minimum wage at a more accelerated rate than the state’s plan – arguing that Sonoma’s higher cost of living warranted a higher wage floor.

Since then, several North Bay municipalities have initiated talks about increasing their minimum wages – some looking at more accelerated rates than Sonoma’s. The call in labor circles for a $15 minimum by 2020 has resulted in the rallying cry, “15 by 20.”

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.

Mara Ventura, executive director of North Bay Jobs with Justice, at the May 6 meeting described the housing situation as “catastrophic.”

“We are experiencing the displacement of low-income families from the city, if not the Sonoma Valley,” said Ventura, who lobbied the council for a $15 by 2020 increase in order to keep workers from having to relocate to other counties. “The rent simply can’t wait,” she said.

Valley resident Mario Castillo also spoke to the need for wage relief – mentioning that he’d taken a job in Marin County due to the higher wages he could earn.

“(We) need to recognize the social inequity that exists for those who do the hard labor and make Sonoma a special place,” said Castillo, who added that Sonoma’s mantra that “everybody’s welcome here” needs to be reflected in public policy. “It’s time for the City of Sonoma to (practice) what they preach.”

Sonoma resident Ben Boyce also spoke to the need for a better wage. “If a person works full time, they should not live in poverty,” said Boyce.

Few commenters at the meeting argued against a minimum wage increase, though several representatives from the Sonoma restaurant community were in attendance to lobby the council for an exemption for tipped employees. Servers, such as wait staff and others, often earn minimum wage, but take home well beyond that after tips are factored in.

City Attorney Jeff Walter, however, said a so-called “tip credit” isn’t allowed under state law.

Still, John Toulze, a partner in the Girl and the Fig restaurant, urged the council to slow its approach to the wage hike. “I don’t understand the haste, I don’t understand the rush,” said Toulze, who said the restaurant community wasn’t against a minimum wage increase, but they were hoping for “wage flexibility.”

Laura Havlek, owner of the Sign of the Bear kitchenware shop on First Street West, said there could be “unintended consequences” of the increase. “My concern is walking the Plaza every day and seeing empty storefronts.”

Vince Albano, of Mary’s Pizza Shack, said the wage increase could lead to difficult cuts at his family’s longtime restaurant. “It’s going to jeopardize their jobs,” he said of the servers.

Of the council members, only David Cook was firmly against a wage increase. Cook said he wasn’t prepared to vote on the matter at that night’s meeting and suggested bringing “both sides back together” to weigh it further.

Though she ultimately voted for the wage increase, Councilmember Madolyn Agrimonti also expressed doubts.

“I know it’s admirable to be above the (state) minimum wage, but I don’t know if that’s good at all,” said Agrimonti.

Councilmember Logan Harvey, who was part of an ad-hoc minimum wage subcommittee with Harrington, joined the mayor and Hundley in full support of the increase. “This is a necessary thing for us to do,” said Harvey, who conceded it would likely result in price increases at restaurants. But he said it was time to “stop the bleeding” of low-earners being priced out of the community.

In the end, added Harrington, “it’s fundamentally a moral question.”

“I am not a professional politician, I am a probate attorney,” said Harrington. “But I am on the city council (and) I have the ability to do something that’s better for this town and I have a lot of concerns about people living in poverty.”

Harrington conceded the wage hike wouldn’t lift those living in poverty out of their circumstances. “But it’s a step,” said Harrington. “It’s something we can do and I think we should do it.”

The council voted 4-1, with Councilmember Cook against, to move forward with Hundley’s wage-increase timetable that will incrementally bring the city minimum wage to $16 for all employees by June of 2023.

An initial increase to $13 an hour for businesses with more than 25 employees would take place January 2020, with other businesses following suit that June.

To see the full city council meeting, visit sonomacity.org.

Contact Jason at jason.walsh@sonomanews.com.

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