Supervisors to revisit livable wages on county property

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There is a proposed ordinance heading back to the San Diego County Board of Supervisors on Oct. 5 amending the County Code of Administrative Ordinances relating to employment on county construction projects and property. Introduced by District 3 Supervisor Terra Lawson-Remer and District 4 Supervisor Chair Nathan Fletcher, the proposed Working Families Ordinance sets requirements on business owners that own and operate on county property.

The purpose of the ordinance states:

“Inadequate pay and poor working conditions have a significant adverse impact on the ability of working families to obtain adequate housing and provide for their families and threaten public health. Poverty, unemployment, and income inequality threaten the County of San Diego’s economic prosperity, stability, and competitiveness. The County of San Diego seeks to address these issues by ensuring that those working on County projects or at County-owned property are paid wages and provided working conditions that allow them to adequately provide for themselves and their families, and by taking steps to remove obstacles to quality employment opportunities for area residents.”

The proposed ordinance states that all construction completed on county property, regardless of property ownership is subject to hiring “a skilled and trained workforce,” all contractor’s employees and subcontractors working on a county-awarded project, will be paid “prevailing wages set by the California Department of Industrial Relations,” a “minimum wage, living wage, or similar wage rates as may be set by the County.”

Contractors must provide workers with 56 hours of sick leave. Lessees, licenses, concessionaires, and others making use of county-owned property under a contract with the county are subject to the same requirements under the proposed ordinance.

Via email Lawson-Remer said as the Board of Supervisors, it has an obligation to ensure public lands yields public benefit.

“At its core, the draft Working Families Ordinance serves as a means to make sure those working on county construction projects or county-owned leased land earn a fair day’s wage for a fair day’s work,” she said. “No one who works full time should be forced to live in poverty. When workers earn a fair wage, they spend their money locally to keep food on the table and a roof over their heads, which is good for our communities and our economy.”

Lawson-Remer did not respond to questions about the definitions of skilled, trained workers or prevailing wages.

On Sept. 14, El Cajon City Council unanimously passed a resolution opposing the Working Families Ordinance, believing the city “bears more burden than anywhere else in the county” and with staff recommending Council develop a coalition of interest groups in opposition of the ordinance, hold a press conference before the Oct. 5 meeting, and to provide a testimony of facts at the Oct. 5 meeting.

“Business located specifically in El Cajon have a disadvantage to their competitors outside who are playing by a completely different set of rules,” said City Manager Graham Mitchell who presented the staff report. “El Cajon’s unemployment rate is 40% higher than the region. Our medium house income is 27% less. Our number of low income individuals is 50% higher. Our educational attainment is 43% less. We have a higher rate of housing stock as apartments and almost double the number of renters in the region. We clearly have a need for jobs in our community.”

One of the issues that is not addressed in the proposed ordinance is the definition of “prevailing wages” and a “trained, skilled workforce.”

District 2 Supervisor Joel Anderson said at first, all the supervisors were onboard, but that he will be voting against it at the Oct. 5 meeting, as it affects all unincorporated San Diego County.

“I do not want this ordinance to look for the perfect job by killing all the good jobs. I think it will have a horrible impact,” he said.

Anderson said his district not only has the largest county airport in Gillespie Field, but also long-term business that have made an international name for themselves, always staying in East County. He said at looking at prevailing wages, the average estimate is about $30per hour. He added that a trained, skilled workforce “is a nomenclature for union shops. If you want to do any capital improvement, you can only hire union shops,” he said.

“We have Taylor Guitars, bakers and a whole multitude that lease from the county,” he said. “The part that is disturbing is that for many of these businesses, they hire people with no skills and train them. If you say that you are going to pay prevailing wage, and I am trying to find out what that prevailing wage might be, I am hearing around $30 an hour. How do you train someone for $30? It will stop any kind of training programs that we have.”

In a letter to the County, Taylor Guitars CFO Barbara Wright said that even during the pandemic, Taylor added 178 employees, and that its entry-level wage is well above minimum wage. Taylor has eight building on county land and employs 527 people in El Cajon, but the language of this ordinance prohibits them to make its own business decisions, control its own destiny, and opposed government policies that eliminate its ability to manage its business operations. A spokesperson from Taylor attended the El Cajon City Council meeting and said if this county ordinance goes through, Taylor may no longer be able to stay in El Cajon.

Anderson said Taylor is a fitting example of why this ordinance hurts more than it helps businesses on county property.

“They take young people that have no intention of going to college and give them a career path that will serve them for the rest of their life,” he said. “Some of these kids come from inner cities, never picked up a wrench, a screwdriver, and do not know which side of sandpaper to use, for them to turn around and pay them prevailing wage means they will not be able to pay anyone. Taylor is going to have to move. They are not going to be able to operate under this ordinance.”

Anderson said he supports fair wages, and that he never wants to “hold a worker down,” but pay rates should be determined by skill level.

Anderson said he amended the ordinance to have it reviewed by the county’s Racial Justice Office. He said he thought its input was invaluable due to the many unincorporated areas that serve people of color. He said that he hopes for input before the next meeting, but as it stands, he still believes it hurts the community and does not help it at all.

“We just came out of COVID,” he said. “These businesses are barely hanging on. And now, we are going to change their business plan and expect them to compete. What they are doing is wrong. I want to help people as much as they do, but it cannot be about feeling good. I am not going to do things that make me feel like I am helping people. I actually have to help people.”

Anderson said he also had a problem with the supervisors voting to give $42 million in COVID bonuses in COVID bonuses to all county employees, being the only supervisor to vote no. He said when you take in salary and benefits, divide the bonus evenly across all employees, that county employees on average are making more than $124,000 per year. He said when you look at the average household income of under $60,000 for people in El Cajon, he would consider the bonuses when his residents in El Cajon make $124,000.

“No county employee missed a paycheck. Many worked remotely. And, they have the best healthcare and a guaranteed retirement,” he said.

Anderson said that people lost their jobs during the pandemic and this ordinance will burden restaurants, businesses. “And the just may not recover. This may be the death nail that puts them out of business,” he said.

“This notion that employers want to keep their employees down, it is just the opposite,” he said. “That is not the norm. The norm is that they have their name on the door and they take pride in it, and they want to do right by their employees. They want to be proud of the workplace they created. And they give bonuses based on productivity. I represent many people that are the working poor. And we are killing jobs for the working poor.”

Lawson-Remer said she is grateful for those that weighed in with feedback from business workers and constituents.

“We will use that information to develop an ordinance that provides economic benefit, worker protections, and sets us on an equitable, economic trajectory,” she said.

Fletcher was not available for an interview at the time of print.

Supervisors to revisit livable wages on county property