Speaking Out for a Living Wage

by Khanh Weinberg on August 29, 2014

One by one, they lined up and waited for their turn at the microphone.   Santa Clara County is weighing what it can do to help lift the working class of Silicon Valley out of poverty wages and these people had come with their stories – backed with powerful statistics:

  • 30% of county residents fall below the self-sufficiency standard for basic costs of  living
  • 260,024 private-sector Silicon Valley jobs don’t provide earned sick leave

In voices raw, poignant, some at times thundering, the people of Santa Clara County publicly petitioned their government to pass a countywide living wage ordinance. And to do so without delay.   Speakers at the Aug. 25 forums, hosted by the county Office of Human Relations, included teachers, leaders of faith, and heads of non-profits ranging from Silicon Valley-NAACP to the local United Way.

Also present: the single mom who sends her sick child to school for lack of paid sick time at work; the father who works 16-hour days driving a private bus whose family is one paycheck away from disaster; and the young immigrant shouldering the hopes and dreams of a whole family on her 19-year-old frame.

“Let’s have Silicon Valley lead the way,” said Velia Esquivel-Ferguson, a county public health nurse and a member of SEIU Local 521. “Let us be leaders on this war on poverty.”

The public forums were held at the urging of local social justice organizations, like The South Bay Labor Council, Working Partnerships USA, and SEIU Local 521 to collect public input as the county considers pursuing a living page policy with:

•          Fair Compensation – living wage level with increase for inflation
•          Health care – health benefits with earned sick leave
•          Fair work week – access to enough hours to earn a living, plus predictable and flexible schedules
•          Opportunity – opening doors to good jobs for our local, diverse workforce
•          Voice at work – anti-retaliation requirements and labor peace requirements

Univision found Omar Vasquez at the forum and broadcast his story.

“I get paid twice a month,” said Vásquez, a bus driver for a private company. “One check goes to the rent, and one check goes to food, card bills, gas, PG&E and cell phone. I can’t afford losing one day of work; I don’t get benefits, I don’t get health insurance. I’m forced to work 16, 18 hours a day. We need a living wage.”

Salvador Bustamante, director of Latinos United for a New America: “A living wage ordinance that applies to County contractors, would serve as an example to all employers in the Valley to pay a decent wage for all workers to have a decent life.”

Carmella DiSopa, a revenue collection officer for the county, said she sees first-hand the consequences of workers unable to survive on poverty wages.

“A strong living wage policy will stimulate our economy by allowing people to spend more at local businesses,” said DiSopa.  “It will also reduce the demand on our public services. It would definitely allow me to honestly say that I am proud to be an employee of the County of Santa Clara.”

Committee members asked for copies of speeches, even if they were scribbled notes, in order to prepare a full report for the Board of Supervisors. You can still have your say by sending in written testimony here. The future of thousands of working families in Santa Clara County is in their hands.

This piece first appeared in The Left Hook blog

Filed under: Labor & Education

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