By SEAN SCULLY
THE PRESS DEMOCRAT
Temporary workers at the Sonoma County Fair will once more be eligible for overtime pay next year under the fair’s new proposed budget, but officials warn that the hours will be strictly limited to conserve money.
The county fair board delivered the proposed budget to supervisors Wednesday after voting unanimously last week to restore at least some overtime pay next year. Overtime had been eliminated in 2013 as a cost-saving measure, but the cut sparked outrage by labor groups and pointed criticism by several supervisors.
“We want to create a work environment for our employees that leads them to feel that they have our backing and our support, however that is expressed,” fair President Lisa Carreño said Wednesday. “If for the community we need to demonstrate that we believe in our staff by budgeting that overtime, that is what we will do.”
Supervisors had yet to see details of the budget, which is likely to come before them next week, but several expressed pleasure at the change.
Shirlee Zane, the most vocal critic of the no-overtime policy at a meeting in October, praised the fair board for its efforts at financial restraint. “I also give them credit for hearing what the board said on this social justice issue; I care about the workers,” she said.
Supervisor Susan Gorin, who was also outspoken in her disapproval of cutting overtime, said she was pleased by the change.
“It’s important not to take advantage of the seasonal workers and not deny them overtime pay,” she said. “Working folks have worked too long to create overtime and all of the policies associated with that to just brush it aside because we don’t have the money.”
The 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.
The new budget includes about $28,000 for overtime, but it is not clear how much will go to the seasonal workers. Carreño said that figure will have to cover overtime for all workers, full- and part-time, for operations at the fairground all year long, meaning the seasonal workers will likely get much less overtime pay than they had enjoyed at the 2012 fair and before.
Fair Manager Tawny Tesconi said the overtime budget “will be strictly managed” and the fair cannot afford to exceed the budgeted amount.
Carreño said workers had expressed pleasure at the no-overtime policy in 2013, since it freed them to work more hours at the regular pay rate than they would have done under the old limited-overtime rules. She and other fair officials have said they were unaware of any complaints from workers, who were not forced to work extra hours but requested extra shifts voluntarily.
Many of the seasonal workers are retired people, teachers on summer holiday, and college students, many of whom appreciated the opportunity to work the extra hours, fair officials say. Temporary workers earn from $8 to $30 per hour, depending on the type of job and their seniority. The vast majority earn from $8 to $14, according to the fair.
The fair, which is just coming out of several money-losing years, is struggling to deal with the increase in the state minimum wage, to $9 per hour next year, a change that will cost an estimated $85,000. The fair will need to add a similar amount to the budget in 2016, when the minimum wage rises to $10 per hour.
Labor leaders had argued that the fair should balance its budget by cutting other items, such as the the VIP reception area for contributors, vendors, and dignitaries, which usually costs about $40,000 a year.
“There has always been money for them to have these parties they throw for themselves, with free tickets, free drinks and free horse racing,” said Lisa Maldonado, executive director of the North Bay Labor Council.
The fair is hoping to generate extra money by raising ticket prices and creating new premium seating packages at concerts; those changes could generate more than $150,000. The fair is also hoping to have 13 days of horse racing at the 16-day fair, an increase over recent years and a windfall of at least $150,000, although staff warned the board last week that revenue from the track could fall short of historical models because gamblers might go instead to the newly-opened Graton Resort and Casino in Rohnert Park.
The state Horse Racing Board had threatened to shift the horse racing days later in the year to allow an extra week of racing in July at the State Fair, but back down after area politicians applied pressure. The board is expected to approve the fair’s 13 racing days at a meeting Dec. 12.
The county fair is set to run July 24 through Aug. 10.
(You can reach Staff Writer Sean Scully at 521-5313 or email@example.com. On Twitter @BeerCountry)