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County workers demand COLA; Board contemplates living wage law

People wearing purple shirts and holding signs demanding better pay and more staffing fill the chambers of a local government chambers.
County union workers filled the Board of Supervisors' chambers Tuesday morning.

County workers are outraged over the county's offer of a 0% COLA. Meanwhile, the Board heard from labor experts encouraging a living wage ordinance.

July 14, 2022 — The Board of Supervisors’ chambers filled to overflowing at Tuesday’s meeting, with county union workers demanding better pay and an end to staffing shortages as inflation climbs. Regional union reps weighed in, too, saying they were dismayed at the county’s offer of a 0% cost of living allowance.

Workers had filed out, chanting, “we’ll be back,” by the time supervisors decided to have a study session on what it would take to craft a living wage ordinance.

The first speaker of the day was Vince Hawkins, a health inspector who spoke about how many of his colleagues have been lured elsewhere by better pay. Purple-clad workers rose silently from seats marked “Unavailable” and raised their signs as he spoke. “On any given day, I could be the only health inspector to respond to complaints or inspections for food facilities or recreational water facilities or well and small water systems, body art facilities, things like that,” he said; when “those three empty seats should be filled with my co-workers to go out and do the job with me. It’s no fun having to go out and do it by yourself.”

Speakers were mostly from the social work and public health sectors, like Heidi Corrado, the county’s public health emergency preparedness coordinator. “One way that many counties and municipalities have been showing appreciation for their employees is through the American Rescue Plan Act,” she noted. “In fact, this was one of the listed purposes of ARPA. Now, Mendocino County has received ARPA funds, but so far, the administration has said nothing and made no proposals, while staff watch other public employees in neighboring counties be acknowledged for their service…these employees come to work even when they themselves were evacuated and living in a shelter; worked at home when they were sick with covid; went to work knowing that they could be called out to respond to a home where everyone in that house was sick. It’s true that you cannot buy that kind of work ethic. It’s true. You cannot buy that kind of loyalty. But it should be rewarded.” The room erupted in a solid fifteen seconds of cheers and applause when she finished her remarks.

The county is negotiating with employee units again today. Asked if county workers are moving towards a strike, SEIU Local 1021 Field Representative Patrick Hickey said in a text that “if the County doesn’t move, we’ll be discussing all of our options at our next General Membership meetings on Wednesday, July 20.”

Later in the morning, Supervisor Ted Williams sought support from the board for a living wage ordinance to help low wage workers earn sufficient pay. “You know, frankly, I just feel embarrassed,” he said as he introduced the item. “It makes me feel like we’re the Wal-Mart of employers.”

Supervisor Dan Gjerde said the county pays 70 cents in benefits for every dollar in wages for most of its employees, which means that the county pays $34 an hour for a worker earning $20 an hour. “Some of the better private-sector employers are paying about 30 cents in benefits for every dollar in salary, so that turns into $26 at $20 an hour pay,” he said; “so it’s much easier for those contractors (that are hired by the county), to bring their employees in at $20 an hour starting pay than it is for the county.”

Supervisor John Haschak pointed out the irony of asking county staff in departments that typically represent the county in negotiations with employees, to also work on a living wage ordinance. “In this time of real budget crisis and very difficult times even providing anyone with a COLA when the cost of living is going up at 7 or 8%, then I don’t want to see staff time diverted from trying to figure out that problem at this point,” he said.

Martin Bennett, a professor emeritus at Santa Rosa Junior College, co-founder of North Bay Jobs with Justice, and a staff member of a North Bay union, called in to say that Sonoma county and three of its cities have adopted living wage ordinances. “Living wage ordinances have proven to be good public policy,” he declared, saying that UC Berkeley Labor Center and others have proven that they reduce turnover and absenteeism, and increase retention and the quality of services. “Living wage ordinances also ensure that taxpayers do not subsidize employers that pay less than a livable wage, forcing workers to access public programs,” such as MediCare and food stamps. He offered his help and that of staff at the Labor Council, to provide information about their experience crafting the living wage ordinance in Sonoma County, as well as contact information for advocates and staff all over the state, in other counties that have enacted living wage laws.

Gjerde asked about what he called the roll-up effect, when low-wage workers get a raise and their managers demand the same percentage raise to maintain the gap between them, which he worries could result in a torrent of increased pay for employees at the management level. But Bennett said that was unlikely to be a problem. “There are many fiscal impact studies of living wage laws,” he said, including one by the University of Massachusetts of the living wage law in Sonoma County. “The bottom line is this,” he said. “There is a so-called ripple effect when you raise wages at the bottom. But it’s limited.”

The Board voted to direct Williams to work on the ordinance with outside help and minimal staff time, limited to things like providing documents but no lengthy analysis; and for him to return to the full board at an unspecified time with an informational workshop.

Local News
Sarah Reith is the lead reporter for KZYX News. She joined the KZYX News team in 2017, and covers local politics, water, law enforcement and the arts in Mendocino County.