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County supervisors seek new 'living wage' law

The Santa Clara County Board of Supervisors on Tuesday directed staff to study the impacts of imposing a "living wage" on most government contractors to make it easier for low-wage employees to afford to live in the county.

The board voted 5-0 at the May 20 meeting to have county Chief Executive Jeffrey Smith prepare a report on a plan for a proposed living wage law to board subcommittees by mid-June, a second report by August and an updated report on a framework for a law by September.

Supervisor Ken Yeager, who recommended the law with Supervisor Dave Cortese, did not mention a specific dollar amount per hour to constitute what he believes is a living wage for workers in the county.

But Yeager said that a family with two wage earners and two school-age children in 2014 would need $17.22 an hour to meet a "self-sufficiency standard" in California, as measured by the Insight Center for Community Economic Development, an Oakland-based policy research firm.

Almost 30 percent of residents in Santa Clara County earn below that wage level and 36.7 percent of workers with children take in less than that, Yeager said.

"The impacts of low wages are felt through our social services systems, our health system and through our criminal justice system," Yeager said.

"Even when the economy is booming, prosperity does not automatically trickle down to all workers," he said.

The living wage ordinance would use the county's authority as an employer to increase economic equity by raising standards for jobs subsidized by tax funds, according to Yeager.

Santa Clara County is the third-highest employer in the county, with about 15,000 employees, and spends $2.5 billion on procuring services each year, Yeager said.

More than 120 government jurisdictions, including Santa Cruz and Marin counties and the cities of San Jose, San Francisco and Oakland, have passed living wage ordinances, Yeager said.

The idea is to ensure that county tax money given to contractors is not spent to support low-wage jobs that increase poverty and lead workers to seek more social services, Yeager said.

Those affected by the law if passed include all county government employees, employees of contractors the county pays $50,000 or more to a year, employees of groups receiving economic subsidies from the county and those of organizations that pay below-market leases thanks to the county.

In addition to an unspecified "fair compensation" pay level that would include cost of living raises, the proposed ordinance could require or promote paid sick leave, steady full-time work, equal opportunities for a diverse workforce and the hiring of local residents.

The law would also urge contractors to adopt a "ban the box" policy where job applicants submit criminal record background information "only where relevant and after the initial application process" to help former convicts find jobs, according to a report submitted by Yeager.

Prior to the board's vote on Tuesday, Smith said he would have a report ready by next month, but he cautioned that administering such a law on contractors would be "a daunting task."

"We have literally hundreds of contracts over $50,000," Smith said.

Any new policy would have to handle contracts the county has in which the funds are paid by other government agencies or financial institutions, some of which are mandated by law, Smith said.

Smith said he would suggest how to pare down the number of contracts that would be affected by a future living wage law because there could be "an overwhelming number of contracts to keep track of."

Many of the contracts impacted by the proposal would include local nonprofit organizations to which the county doles out money in return for performing services, and they will have to be consulted, Smith said.

Legal issues could arise with other contractors that have existing agreements with labor unions, Smith said.

The county already pays its workers more than a livable wage so it would not be required to increase government pay and benefits, Smith said.

Smith urged the board to deliberate on the issue because some jurisdictions that did not think it through ended up "creating loopholes" in their living wage laws.

"But we're going to come forward with it," Smith said. "We realize that it is not an issue that will be from an administrative perspective a one-time event. We'll have to watch it."

— Bay City News Service

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