Editorial: Sonoma leads on wages – will cities follow suit?

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Move over Bear Flaggers – Sonoma’s got another first.

As members of the Sonoma City Council pointed this week when approving in a 3-2 vote plans to push the city minimum wage above the state wage by $1 to $2 – Sonoma just became the North Bay’s leading municipality in the struggle for better wages.

“This is a very big deal,” said Councilmember Rachel Hundley at the Monday, June 10 meeting. “This is a very significant development in Northern California and I think that Sonoma is going to be the first of many cities to follow suit.”

And she’s probably right.

In accelerating the Sonoma minimum wage beyond the rate hikes already scheduled by the state, other local cities will likely feel more emboldened to do the same. Petaluma, Novato, Cotati, Sebastopol and Santa Rosa have also been toying with the idea of besting the state’s goal of a $15 wage by 2023 in order to reflect the higher costs of living in Sonoma and Marin counties.

But, while those cities have opened up discussions about strengthening wages, Sonoma’s three-person progressive majority – Councilmembers Hundley, Logan Harvey and Mayor Amy Harrington – have been the only ones to actually act on it. Seeing the City of Sonoma take aggressive steps on wages will certainly quash inhibitions to do the same on city councils elsewhere. KGO-TV reported on Sonoma’s wage push last month; cities throughout the Bay Area are paying attention – not just the North Bay.

Sonoma’s series of increases will place the city’s minimum wage at $16 for employers with 25 or fewer staff and $17 for the larger businesses by 2023, the year the state plans to reach $15. Additionally, the City of Sonoma’s annual cost of living increases from that point forward will likely be based on a higher rate calculator than the state.

Wage advocates -- such as North Bay Jobs with Justice, which has been pushing for a wage increase long before it became a semi-mainstream idea – should see this as a big victory for labor. In fact, one commenter at a recent Sonoma City Council meeting urged the council to approve the ordinance, as it would give their union greater negotiating power when contracts came due.

And, of course, the new pay rate will be a needed life improvement for anyone working a minimum wage job in Sonoma.

The Sonoma business community has been cautious to oppose wage increases for the working poor, but there’s no denying this is going to affect the bottom line at many local businesses. And it’s going to affect it fast. Four years from now, every minimum wage full-time worker in Sonoma will be earning at least $8,320 more per year than they are today. Restaurants will feel the pinch in particular – their business models are dependent upon service staff, which are often paid at minimum wages because their livelihoods are subsidized by tipping customers.

Lobbying by local restaurant owners to exempt tipped employees from the accelerated minimum wages went nowhere with the City Council. First, it’s probably not legal; second, the council majority was never really into the idea to begin with.

Harrington described recent-past Sonoma City Councils as “do-nothing” councils on June 3, when the wage ordinance had its first vote. “That isn’t this council,” she said.

Like it or not – and some certainly don’t – that’s been a pretty accurate assessment thus far in the six months since the 2018 election, in which voters gave progressive candidate Logan Harvey the council seat recently vacated by Gary Edwards. In addition to the wage hikes, this year the council has banned spraying of the herbicide glyphosate on city property, reversed the city’s longtime ban on commercial cannabis operations, created a so-called housing trust fund to incentivize affordable housing projects and raised the tax on overnight hotel stays by 1 percent with those revenues feeding the housing trust fund.

Not everyone is pleased with where the council has put its efforts; one longtime city Poobah has predicted a recall effort might be in the cards for some on the council. We’re not seeing any serious momentum in that direction, however.

Because as much as some in the business and development communities might be frustrated with the current council makeup, even more have criticized the council in recent years for preferring a wait-and-see approach to matters the community has routinely cited as priorities – with some members saying it’s safer to let other cities make the first move before taking action.

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

That’s one way of looking at it. But there’s another word for it, too: Leading.

Contact Jason at jason.walsh@sonomanews.com.

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