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House of Payin'

County-state conundrum over $15-an-hour living wage for in-home workers

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FOR A FEW DOLLARS MORE California in-house support workers agitate for better pay earlier this year, goshdarnit. - DAN HOLM
  • Dan Holm
  • FOR A FEW DOLLARS MORE California in-house support workers agitate for better pay earlier this year, goshdarnit.

The Sonoma County Board of Supervisors couldn't resolve the issue of how much to pay county home healthcare workers this year as they signed a $1.45 billion budget.

The workers get paid $11.65 an hour. County supervisors, under pressure to raise the rate to $15, balked over concerns that a rate hike could dry up county surpluses.

The supervisors went for a limited pay hike for some—but not the 5,000 workers in the state-managed In-Home Supportive Services (IHSS) program. Those workers are on the front line of home-based eldercare and care for those with disabilities. Critics say the county pushed off the issue to the state to set a single statewide wage, which is years away.

Workers are now in limbo between a county that says it can't raise wages without real pain, and a state that has shown little stomach for a $15 living wage. The wage picture is complicated by budget moves made by Gov. Jerry Brown that affected in-house care providers. Indeed, pay-equity advocates had to fight this year to restore billable hours cut by Brown.

The county told wage-equity advocates that "the bargaining is going to the state level soon," says Marty Bennett of North Bay Jobs with Justice. "The supervisors are hiding behind it, but that's not true. It's not going to happen for some time."

Sonoma County Supervisor David Rabbitt says the county is still in negotiations with the workers—behind closed doors. He adds that the county's wage is ranked seventh or eighth among the state's 58 counties—and he agrees that the workers could use a break.

"The IHSS workers are typically underpaid for what they do," he says, "and the reality is, yes, it is a state issue."

The backdrop for the wage fight is found in a public authority created in 2011, the statewide Coordinated Care Initiative that aimed to set the wage for these workers through negotiations with the Service Employees International Union (SEIU). But its initial reach covered only a handful of counties: Los Angeles, Orange, Riverside, San Bernardino, San Diego, San Mateo and Santa Clara.

Sonoma won't get phased-in until 2018, and local wage-equity advocates say that's too long too wait. Rabbitt's personal view, he says, is that SEIU pushed for the 2011 bill in Sacramento to leverage better wages for lower-tier workers in other counties, who make as little as $8.50 an hour. "We're already in the top tier."

Marin County voluntarily enacted a state-high $13.10 wage for IHSS workers following creation of the state authority, but Sonoma County remains at $11.65. Rabbitt notes "that's why we are in collective bargaining."

"Right now, we bargain county to county," says Ben Delgado, deputy director of government relations at SEIU-United Healthcare Workers, which represents the home-care workers.

Delgado says negotiators with the county this year accepted that the supervisors had not yet phased-in to the state authority.

"We said to the county, 'You ultimately have to bargain with us to raise wages and benefits.' For them to then say that the state will have [the workers] best interest, it's pointing the finger elsewhere."

The slow-roll toward a living wage is of a piece with moves made by austerity Democrats like Brown. Last week he agreed to a $167.6 billion budget that included $61 million above his $115.4 billion proposal. His 2015 budget left intact a 7 percent cut to billable hours directed at in-home workers—but he put $226 million back into IHSS to undo the cut. That provision lasts one year.

Closer to home, Rabbitt says the annual county IHSS budget is around $13.5 million, and that the county "struggled to find the 15 cents to add" to get it to $11.65.

Katie Kleinsasser, communications director at CalNonprofits, says wages for in-house workers is a nagging issue around the state as she describes a "peculiar link between county and state funding for in-house home workers."

The IHSS budget fix, says Kleinsasser, gave Brown an opportunity to put better optics on his priorities, in light of a surplus.

"The budget doesn't do much for seniors," Kleinsasser says. "There's a small piece of the budget that tries to deal with the [IHSS] hours issue as a way to get something in the budget for seniors and people with disabilities."

The wage issue remains with the county, and Rabbitt says that "we are still in collective barganing, and we'll negotiate in good faith." Delgado notes that "for Sonoma, maybe we can't pay them the $15, but there is a pathway—and what does that look like? In terms of what the state can do," he says, "they can try and expedite the phasing-in" of the Coordinated Care Initiative, but he doesn't see anything happening until 2018. In the meantime, the workers can't wait.

The Sonoma IHSS contract ends in October, Delgado says, and there's a bargaining meeting in July.

"We're going to go back to the supervisors to get them to do right by the workers," says Delgado.

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