Sebastopol residents Paul Esparza (left) and Sally Sorenson struggle to make ends meet at $11.65 an hour as in-home caregivers through a county program known as In-Home Supportive Services. The Sonoma County board of supervisors will consider a $15 an hour Living Wage Ordinance in June that could affect as many as 9,000 such workers.

Living wage ordinance coming before board of supervisors in June

Three days a week, Sally Sorenson leaves Sebastopol a few minutes after 8 a.m. She rides a bus to Guerneville, and then walks to her job as an in-home caregiver. Her job is in Monte Rio and it takes her about half an hour to walk along the highway to get there. She has to be in Monte Rio by 10 a.m. to begin her eight-hour shift caring for a severely disabled woman.

About 6 p.m., if she gets all her work done on time, she leaves for home. Another 30-minute walk, another wait for a bus ride and she’s home, usually between 8 and 10 p.m. According to Sorenson, her client often has a tough day. “Her situation is difficult. It can take her three hours to get from her bed to her potty chair.”

Sorenson’s weekly income, before payroll deductions, is $279.60, which works out to a little under $15,000 a year, less than half of the per capita income in Sonoma County (according to U.S. Census Bureau figures).

Sorenson is among almost 5,000 people in Sonoma County employed by a program called In-Home Supportive Services. According to Jerry Dunn, Director of Human Services for the county of Sonoma, “IHSS is designed to allow the frail elderly and people with disabilities to stay in their homes and not go into long-term care facilities.”

“I can’t say enough about its importance to our community,” Dunn said, explaining that while IHSS clients work with the county to qualify, the IHSS workers like Sorenson are paid through a “public authority” set up for that purpose.

IHSS workers’ wages are currently frozen in Sonoma County at $11.65 an hour, and a coalition of unions and activists have rallied around a proposal to raise the minimum wage for them to $15 an hour.

According to Martin Bennett of the Living Wage Coalition of Sonoma County, about 9,000 workers would be affected by the $15 an hour proposal, primarily county workers and employees of certain businesses that contract with the county.

IHSS workers are represented by the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), but wages are strongly impacted by state and federal regulations. A recent federal court case resulted in IHSS workers being denied overtime or travel pay, and many do not receive vacation and health benefits.

Paul Esparza, another Sebastopol caregiver, is a member of the bargaining committee of SEIU, and says that a raise to $15 an hour “would allow me to breathe a little easier. Frozen corndogs are delicious but you can’t live on them. I’d like to eat meat and fresh vegetables, but I can’t afford them every day.”

Esparza describes the range of duties for a caregiver by narrating an average morning at a current client’s home. “My client is bedridden, he has to be taken out of bed and put in his wheelchair with a hoist, so I get him in position and operate the hoist, make him breakfast, bathe him, groom him, dress and undress him, clean his urinary catheter … he has a dangerous bedsore on his back, it’s a big hole about an inch deep, so I clean and dress it.”

Esparza also prepares food for his client for the rest of the day and drives him to and from doctor appointments. He is not paid for “wait time” while his client is at the doctor.

The job market is improving and employers are looking for skilled workers, so why do Sorenson and Esparza drive (no gas money allowance) or ride the bus (no travel allowance) to do a job that doesn’t pay overtime or offer regular raises?

“It’s second nature to me,” Sorenson said. “I’ve had lots of jobs, but this is so fulfilling. It’s an accomplishment to do this for people who need it.”

Esparza agrees. “I love being a caregiver. I have a calling for it.”

The Living Wage Ordinance Coalition of Sonoma County hopes that the Sonoma County Board of Supervisors will consider their proposed ordinance in June. According to Dunn, the total cost of providing this service now is likely more than $36 million a year, and the county’s share is about $18 million.

The Board of Supervisors received a report last November estimating that it could cost up to $12.3 million a year to implement a $15 living wage ordinance that would include the 5,000 IHSS workers.

The living wage collation has its own studies, including a report by Jeanette Wicks-Lim of the Political Economy Research Institute in Massachusetts that suggests higher wages will benefit the local economy by putting more spending money in workers’ hands and benefit IHSS clients by making that job market more competitive. Wicks-Lim states that the initial cost could be $10.6 million a year, and the annual cost could drop to $5.7 million if more frail elderly and disabled are able to stay in their homes, saving money for the county and the state.

Bennett notes that many IHSS workers utilize services such as Medi-Cal and food assistance programs, and may not need to with a higher wage. Sorenson agrees. “One of my co-workers has a car and he makes the rounds of the food pantries and shares his food with me,” she said.

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