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Wildfires and power outages impact low-wage workers

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PQ The current minimum wage in unincorporated Sonoma County, where many of the farming operations are located, is just $12 an hour. - MILES BURGIN
  • Miles Burgin
  • PQ The current minimum wage in unincorporated Sonoma County, where many of the farming operations are located, is just $12 an hour.

RAISE UP Local group pushes for minimum wage increases across North Bay as fires cause uncertainty.

Two weeks ago, while thousands of Sonoma County residents fled south in the largest evacuation in the county's history, hundreds of workers stayed behind harvesting grapes in smoky fields near Healdsburg.

Legally, the workers were not required to work, but, according to several news reports, the workers could not afford to take unpaid time off, especially during the grape harvest. A similar situation unfolded in Napa County during the October 2017 fires, according to a report in the Los Angeles Times.

The scene highlights an unfortunate reality in the North Bay. With a minimum wage of just $12 an hour in unincorporated Sonoma County coupled with soaring housing prices, many workers are too poor to skip work even if they're working in an evacuation zone and the air is clogged with smoke.

Under state labor law, businesses are not required to pay nonexempt hourly workers for missed hours due to formal evacuation orders, a gas or electricity shut off, or any other "Act of God," according to the California Chamber of Commerce.

The events of late October arguably fell into all three categories for large swaths of Sonoma County. PG&E shut off electricity to reduce wildfire risk and the Sonoma County Sheriff's Office issued mandatory evacuation orders for tens of thousands of residents and businesses across large swaths of the county.

From one perspective, the current law makes sense. After all, employers cannot predict "Acts of God"—or acts of PG&E for that matter—so they should not be required to pay for missed work. Then again, workers are no better equipped to predict disasters or power shutoffs.

The state's Employment Development Department does offer unemployment insurance in such cases but the check takes several weeks to come through even when the normal one-week wait period is waived during disasters.

As of Nov. 7, 1,233 people had applied for state unemployment benefits due to the impacts of the Kincade wildfire, according to Barry White, a spokesman for the state Employment Development Department. Statewide, only 88 individuals have applied for insurance due to PG&E's widespread power shutoffs.

Immigrant workers without proper paperwork are not able to collect any unemployment insurance for lost wages at all.

"Individuals who are not U.S. Citizens or Nationals must be able to show that they have authorization to work in the United States both while earning the wages on which their claims are based, as well as while they are collecting benefits," White told the Bohemian.

Stagnant Wages

Mara Ventura, executive director of North Bay Jobs with Justice, has witnessed the chaos that disasters can wreak on low-wage workers several times over the past two years, as Sonoma County becomes an epicenter of climate change–fueled natural disasters.

During the Kincade Fire and PG&E Public Safety Power Shutoffs, Ventura volunteered at a Marin County emergency shelter. Some of the recipients lived on such shoestring budgets before the fires that they needed gas money to get back to their homes, Ventura says.

This financial vulnerability is born out in a report published by the Federal Reserve this May. The report concludes that nearly 40 percent of Americans would have to skip bills or borrow money if they were faced with an unexpected $400 expense.

With the track record of natural disasters over the past few years and PG&E's CEO Bill Johnson acknowledging last month that widespread Public Safety Power Shutoffs may persist for the next 10 years, temporary unemployment due to emergencies may become increasingly common. That's bad news for low wage workers in the North Bay.

The current minimum wage in unincorporated Sonoma County, where many of the farming operations are located, is just $12 an hour. A 2017 publication by the California Budget and Policy Center estimated the living wage—what it would take to live comfortably—at approximately $21.70 an hour for two parents raising two children in Sonoma County. Of course, housing prices have increased since then.

For years, North Bay Jobs With Justice has pushed for an accelerated increase in the minimum wage across the North Bay to help workers cope with the conditions. Under state law, the minimum wage is set to increase to $15 by Jan. 1, 2023. In its current campaign, NBBJ is pushing for a $15 minimum rate at least two years sooner.

The proposal made some progress in the past year. Santa Rosa, the City of Sonoma and Petaluma have all passed laws speeding up the increase in the minimum wage.

Cotati and Sebastopol are expected to consider similar proposals in the coming months, according to Ventura. After that, the group may take the proposal to the Sonoma County Board of Supervisors.

Ventura says that, while Sebastopol and Cotati are smaller than other cities, the impacts of the minimum wage are generally the same as in the other North Bay cities that have considered the issue this year.

An October 2018 study of the possible impacts of a $15 minimum wage by the University of California, Berkeley, Labor Center found that small businesses would face slight impacts compared to the benefits to workers and their families.

After extensive outreach to the business community by city staff, the Santa Rosa City Council passed the increase unanimously on Oct. 1.

Several council members acknowledged that even a $15 wage is not enough to live on comfortably in a city where housing prices spiked in the wake of the October 2017 fires.

"I'm keenly aware that $15 doesn't feel like enough," Santa Rosa Council Member Julie Combs said before the vote.

Even John Sawyer, a longtime council member and business owner who opposed previous efforts to increase the minimum wage, supported the increase this time around.

"I can't imagine what it would be like to be a teenager or someone in their early 20s trying to make a go of it in Santa Rosa given how expensive it is to live here," Sawyer said.

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