By SEAN SCULLY
THE PRESS DEMOCRAT
The Sonoma County Fair should restore overtime pay for temporary workers, the Sonoma County Board of Supervisors said Tuesday, though members acknowledged they have limited power to force the change.
“I do feel very strongly that this is a social justice issue,” said Supervisor Shirlee Zane, the strongest voice on the board for restoring the overtime funding.
The county Fair Board eliminated the overtime pay for about 600 temporary workers for the 2013 fair, a move that saved about $29,000 for the cash-strapped organization. They were permitted to make the change under federal rules that exempt many short-term entertainment events from paying overtime; fair officials say at least 46 other fairs around the state do not pay such workers overtime.
Labor leaders and the county’s Democratic Party, however, reacted strongly against the policy, leaning on supervisors to demand a return to overtime pay.
“Denying those at the bottom of the pay scale the overtime pay they have traditionally enjoyed is not appropriate,” party Chairman Stephen Gale said at Tuesday’s meeting.
Lisa Moldanado, executive director of the North Bay Labor Council, said the fact that other fairs do not pay overtime is no justification.
“It is not the right policy for the county,” she said. “It helps exacerbate the very causes of income disparity.”
But fair leaders say restoring the overtime will not put more money in the pockets of workers since the fair has no money with which to pay them. Workers would simply be restricted to working no more than 40 hours a week and then sent home.
Longtime fair supervisor Dorothy Henderson told the board that many of her workers were young people earning extra money for college and they had been eager to work the extra hours for regular pay. Older workers and others who did not want to work beyond their regular shifts were not required to do so.
Temporary workers earn between $8 and $30 per hour, depending on the type of job and their seniority. The vast majority earn between $8 and $14, according to the fair.
The supervisors seemed sympathetic to the fair’s money troubles, saying they wanted to see the operation reverse years of financial losses and become profitable. Three of the five, however, explicitly recommended that the fair board restore the overtime: Zane, Susan Gorin, and Mike McGuire.
Supervisors Efren Carrillo and David Rabbitt did not come out against paying overtime, but they seemed more inclined to accept that fair leaders could not afford to pay.
The supervisors cannot directly force the fair board to change its policy. The supervisors appoint the members of the fair board, giving them strong indirect influence, but the organization operates as an independent nonprofit. The temporary employees work for the fair and not for the county.
McGuire suggested that the county government might pick up some or all of the cost of paying overtime, though discussion of that would have to wait until the fair and county begin to prepare their budgets for next year, starting in December.
Fair Manager Tawny Tesconi said the overtime expense is hardly the worst financial challenge facing the fair. The recent hike in the state minimum wage will cost the fair $85,000 in 2014, when the wage goes from $8 to $9, and a like amount in 2016 when the wage reaches $10.
There is also some preliminary discussion among state officials of reducing the number of days of horse racing allowed at the fairgrounds track, she said. That change could cost as much as $150,000 per year.
There is no extra money in the budget to meet any of these expenses, she said. The $8.7 million operating budget for the fairgrounds for the current fiscal year is projecting a net surplus of just $172.
“We’ve got a lot of things hitting us very hard,” she said.
It’s not yet clear what the fair board will do in response to Tuesday’s meeting. The 15-member panel expects to discuss the overtime issue at its next meeting, on Oct. 30, Board President Lisa Carreño said.
(You can reach Staff Writer Sean Scully at 521-5313 or email@example.com)