Higher pay, sick days, business ratings: Santa Clara County mulls big labor changes

Jun 26, 2014, 7:03am PDT Updated: Jun 27, 2014, 9:43am PDT

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Vicki Thompson

Ben Field, executive officer of the South Bay AFL-CIO Labor Council, says that a proposal to increase the living wage paid to Santa Clara County staff and contractors would help increase self-sufficiency for workers contending with high costs of living. The measure could also include provisions requiring paid sick days for county workers and a new ranking system for businesses throughout the county.

Economic Development Reporter- Silicon Valley Business Journal
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A sweeping labor policy proposal winding through Santa Clara County's political process could raise wages for public employees, require paid sick days for workers and implement a new labor-friendliness ranking for businesses based on benefits plans.

While major metro areas like San Francisco, Washington D.C. and Seattle have seen similar reform efforts play out individually in recent years, the initial effort in Silicon Valley to combine the set of policies appears to be unprecedented. It's also likely to run into familiar warnings about job cuts and other negative economic impacts from business advocacy groups or employers whose bottom lines stand to be impacted by labor cost increases.

“We decided to be as inclusive as we could be with the report,” said Santa Clara County Supervisor Ken Yeager, who has championed the proposal now being studied by county staff along with fellow supervisor and labor-backed San Jose mayoral hopeful Dave Cortese. “The next two months are really for the county executive’s office to do the legwork and get a sense of how broad we want to be.”

The focal point of the new proposal is the county’s living wage, or the pay required for county staff and contractors (as opposed to the minimum wage required for all workers). The city of San Jose has a living wage law on the books that ties pay for city workers and contractors to area costs of living, which — in a market roughly 87 percent more expensive than the average U.S. city — pencils out to $17.81 per hour for employees with health benefits or $19.06 without.

“The idea is to create an economy where everyone is self-sufficient,” said Ben Field, executive officer of the South Bay AFL-CIO Labor Council. He added that the county’s position as a major employer could be a jumping off point for broader reforms, since it "sets the standard for employment practices.”

The Labor Council and affiliated think tank Working Partnerships USA are also pushing for a new countywide “family-friendly employer certification” program and hinting at a broader campaign for paid sick days. Field previously led a successful 2012 campaign to raise San Jose’s minimum wage from $8 an hour to $10.

“Self-sufficiency isn’t just about your wage. San Jose ought to have a paid sick days policy, too, but that’s a separate campaign,” said Field, who noted that research on the topic is already underway by local labor groups.

How much money it really takes to get by in Silicon Valley has been in flux of late, particularly as housing prices continue a rapid ascent past $2,000-a-month average rents.

The Oakland-based Insight Center for Community Economic Development conservatively estimates that adults in a family of four would need to make about $72,700 per year to cover basic costs like housing, food and childcare. Just shy of 30 percent of Santa Clara County residents make less than that amount, which is already significantly less than Silicon Valley's $90,000 median income.

“We’ve all become more aware of economic disparities here in the valley," Yeager said of the region's current economic boom.

So far, two Santa Clara county committees have been given the green light to study the living wage and paid sick days for county workers and contractors, plus the labor-friendly business designation for all businesses in the county. An initial report on similar laws in other areas is expected back in mid-August, followed by a full report to the county board of supervisors as soon as October, according to Public Communication Officer Laurel Anderson.

There’s also the possibility that the county could take a more piecemeal approach to labor reform by narrowing the scope of a proposed ordinance after seeing the study results.

Still, any changes to labor policy will require extensive analysis of how many businesses and workers stand to be impacted and what the total price tag of new policies might be. If the recent history of San Jose’s heated minimum wage campaign is any indication, expect lots of political back and forth and conflicting data from business and labor camps.

There’s also the issue of determining who might be included in new rules for county contractors as the government works with business ranging from local construction companies to conglomerates who provide office supplies.

“Many people have contracts with the county,” Yeager said. “At some point we need to figure out where the cutoff is going to be.”

Click here to read more about the state of labor politics in Silicon Valley.

This week, SVBJ focused on Business in the 408. Read more here, and then attend our event to hear from an expert panel on the region’s trends.

Lauren Hepler is the economic development reporter at the Silicon Valley Business Journal.

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