Santa Rosa to explore accelerating move to $15-an-hour minimum wage

By: Will Schmitt |  The Press Democrat |

Santa Rosa is poised to speed up increases to the local minimum wage, joining a statewide push to bolster pay for low- income workers that’s prompted some small businesses to ask for the city’s help to offset higher payroll costs.

An ordinance set to go before the City Council on Oct. 1 would put Santa Rosa in the company of more than two dozen California cities who have decided to move faster than the state’s mandate to raise minimum wages for workers to $15 by 2023.

The plan before the council would raise the minimum wage to $15 per hour for larger businesses and $14 for smaller businesses starting in July, with baseline hourly pay for both hitting $15 in 2021. That’s caught the attention of some local businesses, some of which fear higher personnel costs could be tough to stomach.

Faster wage hikes above and beyond $15 per hour are meant to pay more to productive workers who might be struggling to afford a place to live in the housing- starved Bay Area, said Mara Ventura, executive director of North Bay Jobs with Justice, a workers rights group advocating for swifter adoption of higher minimum wages. She added the organization wouldn’t be advocating for the wage hikes if it thought it would negatively affect small businesses, seeking to dispel fears that higher wages would prompt layoffs or closings.

“It is not a job-killer. It is not a community killer,” Ventura said. “It is actually a stimulus for local economies.”

Speedier wage-increase plans already have been enacted in Sonoma, which plans to raise its minimum wage up to $15 for small businesses and $16 for large businesses in 2022 and as high as $17 in 2023, and in Petaluma. Sebastopol, Cotati, and Novato also are among the cities in which North Bay Jobs With Justice hopes to see quicker increases.

The draft of Santa Rosa’s wage-hike plan scheduled for the vote calls for the minimum wage to be set at $15 for employers with more 25 employees in 2020. Businesses with fewer workers would have until 2021 to start paying their employees $15 per hour at minimum, with future adjustments for all businesses based on costs of living. Enforcement of the local minimum wage rule would be based on complaints.

The wage issue prompted some somber discussion at a Wednesday meeting of the Downtown Action Organization, an advocacy group for businesses and property owners in central Santa Rosa — many of whom are bracing for higher personnel costs and are looking for the city to help.

“I think everyone agrees that the increase in wages is a good thing to employees,” said Zach Berkowitz, a developer with several downtown projects. “The problem is, it’s a higher expense for the employers.”

Members of the downtown group, in addition to voicing their opinions on the impact to Santa Rosa, also made some suggestions how the city might help businesses mind their bottom lines.

“Parking, garbage, sales tax and your business license fees: Those four things should be looked at aggressively to contain costs,” said Hugh Futrell, a Santa Rosa developer, general contractor and real estate broker, to Raissa de la Rosa, the city’s economic development manager.

De la Rosa said after the meeting that the city would focus on helping businesses on the margin of profitability — for which parking costs might be a make-or-break issue, for example — find resources such as micro-loan programs to help with any financial problems they may have.

“If parking is killing you, there’s probably a broader issue with your business,” she said.

Another minimum- wage-focused meeting of the downtown group has been scheduled for next week to allow additional input before the issue reaches the City Council.

Ventura, the Jobs with Justice official, argued that higher minimum wages could help businesses, citing restaurants in particular as an industry marked by relatively high turnover rates that could benefit if workers earning more are less apt to seek employment elsewhere.

“We understand that for most small business owners this is their life savings,” she said, adding, “We would never move a minimum wage ordinance forward if we think it was going to harm small businesses.”

Editor’s note: This article has been updated to clarify the details of minimum wage hikes in Sonoma.