By SEAN SCULLY
THE PRESS DEMOCRAT
The Sonoma County Democratic Party is demanding that county fair officials reverse a decision denying overtime pay to about 600 temporary workers at the annual event.
In a letter to the board of supervisors Monday, party Chairman Stephen Gale sharply criticized the decision, saying the policy will save about $20,000 at the same time the fair is spending more than twice that for catered lunches for VIPs, a longstanding tradition at the fair.
“There is no such thing as a free lunch,” he wrote. “In this case, the lowest paid temporary workers are subsidizing a free lunch the county provides to some of the most affluent members of our community.”
The meals in what is known as the Directors Room are a fair board tradition going back many decades. Meals for invited guests are served in a shaded patio behind the fair administration building. Alcoholic beverages are included.
The affected workers serve as ticket takers, ushers, janitors, and parking lot attendants at the 16-day fair. They supplement the 27 full-time staff; about 450 of the 600 work only during the fair and the rest work at other temporary jobs with the county.
The policy is legal, since federal law exempts certain types of “amusement establishments” from rules requiring overtime pay, but this is the first year the fair has invoked the exemption.
Fair Manager Tawny Tesconi did not return a phone call requesting comment on the letter.
At their regular meeting Tuesday, the supervisors seemed inclined to at least discuss intervening.
“I for one would be happy to pay 10 or 15 dollars for lunch when I go over there and get those employees paid,” Supervisor Shirlee Zane said.
Zane said after the meeting that she remains supportive of the fair board and staff, but she said the Democratic Party raised “a fair question to ask.”
Supervisor Susan Gorin said the letter had provoked an “important conversation.”
The board cannot take any action before the fair wraps up on Aug. 11 because its next meeting is not until Aug. 13. The supervisors could not take any action at Tuesday’s meeting because the matter was not on the previously advertised agenda. Members did, however, ask staff to look into the question and bring it back as an official agenda item at some point.
Supervisor Mike McGuire said the board should ask Tesconi and other fair leaders to explain the policy at a meeting.
The supervisors do not directly control the management of the fair, but they do appoint members of the county fair board and approve the fair’s annual budget.
Chairman David Rabbitt seemed less troubled by the overtime issue than Zane and Gorin, pointing out that the workers volunteer to work the extra hours and were told upfront about the change in policy.
He also defended the VIP luncheon, saying it was designed to attract sponsors and people who would spend even more money at the fair. Rabbitt said he had attended the luncheons himself and expected to spend about $1,200 personally on fair tickets, raffles, merchandise and events.
He said he and Gale are friends, “but on this one, we may have to agree to disagree.”
Gale said the Democratic Central Committee decided to step into the issue because it appeared that nobody else had taken up the workers’ cause.
“It’s fundamental to the values of the Democratic Party that workers should be protected from exploitation,” he said, “including being forced to work excessive hours or excessive consecutive days without premium compensation.”
In the letter, Gale asked the supervisors to direct the fair board to reverse the policy and offer workers retroactive pay for any extra hours worked during this year’s fair.
Rabbitt said it’s not clear how quickly the board can discuss the matter, but he said is likely to be soon, if not at the Aug. 13 meeting.
You can reach Staff Writer Sean Scully at 521-5313 or firstname.lastname@example.org.