Work at a business on county property? Your pay and benefits may increase

A proposal to mandate prevailing wages and sick time for businesses operating on county-owned property is drawing fierce opposition from those who argue it will harm hundreds of companies and their workers and from others who say it is nothing more than a partisan parlor trick.

The “Working Families Ordinance” was brought forward by Supervisors Terra Lawson-Remer and Nathan Fletcher in July, two of the five-member board’s more liberal members. They say raising wages and guaranteeing protections for employees will address the region’s widening pay and housing inequities.

“Having higher wages is a good thing, but putting businesses and people out of work is a bad thing,” said Supervisor Joel Anderson, a Republican who joined his three Democratic colleagues in voting in favor of the proposal. But he asked that it be given a more rigorous review before it comes back for a final nod. “This is a tipping point that could ultimately cost us jobs and opportunities,” he said.

If adopted in its current form at the Board of Supervisors meeting on Oct. 5, the ordinance would impact as many as 560 enterprises now operating on county property, primarily at airports and surrounding properties in El Cajon, Carlsbad, Fallbrook, Ramona, Jamul and Borrego.

A key element of the proposed ordinance is a requirement that workers be paid prevailing wages, which are typically based on union wages. The ordinance also would mandate 56 hours of annual sick leave.

In addition to the wage and benefit provisions, supervisors say another goal of the ordinance is to ensure that bidders on publicly funded projects are held to appropriate wage and safety standards.

The county acts as a landlord of its properties, while cities such as El Cajon and Carlsbad have land-use jurisdiction over the parcels.

The city with the largest concentration of businesses that would be impacted by the proposed ordinance is El Cajon, where more than 277 companies operate on or around Gillespie Field, which is on county property. Nearly half of El Cajon’s manufacturing and industrial zoned land is owned by the county.

El Cajon Mayor Bill Wells, a Republican, said it was clearly a political ploy, and one that would harm communities of color.

“We all know the county has gone very radical left, woke, and we know that the city of El Cajon is conservative,” Wells said. “I contend this is blatant, pure politics, hardball politics, and I can fight all day long. They’re attacking people that are trying to put food on the table in El Cajon. They’re taking their woke politics and they’re destroying lives.”

Lawson-Remer said that public land used for public benefit and (any future) publicly funded projects need to have workers who are paid appropriately — “a fair day’s pay for work so that they don’t have to live in poverty and try to take care of their families.”

She said supervisors are concerned about underpaid workers because the cost of living in San Diego County is high. She said the ordinance provides “wage and health and safety rules that level the playing field for all.”

The ordinance states that it “will improve pay and working conditions in the industries and sectors that rely most heavily on labor from women and people of color, including construction and services.”

“It’s about not exploiting workers on public land,” Lawson-Remer said. “People who work hard, who get up every day to do their part to contribute and give back. We support the families who want to put food on the table. We have a commitment to ensuring that everyone in San Diego has opportunity.”

Lawson-Remer said the ordinance is still being crafted, and could be modified. She said it would apply only when leases are up for renewal.

In Carlsbad, an estimated 177 leases or subleases would be impacted at the county-owned McClellan-Palomar Airport. The facility’s advisory committee last week approved a resolution opposing the ordinance.

“I personally believe it’s bad policy for the county and certainly bad for the airport,” said committee Chair Chuck Collins, who is president of multiple businesses at the North County airport offering services including aircraft sales, appraisals, charters and aviation asset management.

“Enforcing (the proposed ordinance) would have so many potential unintended consequences that I just don’t know how it would be implemented,” Collins said.

The advisory committee has nine members appointed by the county Board of Supervisors, including residents of Carlsbad, Vista, San Marcos and Oceanside.

El Cajon said the ordinance would cause great economic harm to Gillespie Field and its tenants. The airport houses 50 aircraft hangars with about 30 small businesses that pay rent to the county.

The county also owns land surrounding the airport, and in total, the city estimates there are 300 El Cajon businesses leasing property from the county, and that based on city business license data, there are as many as 3,500 people who are employed at those businesses.

Barry Bardack, of the Gillespie Field Development Council and chief flight instructor at Golden State Flying Club, said the revenues that come in from the Gillespie Field Industrial Park go into an airport enterprise fund. That fund is used to operate the airport system, he said. The county’s proposal would likely chase renters out, which will affect the major leaseholders, who in turn could eventually default on their leases.

“The whole area will become abandoned,” Bardack said. “The industrial park supports the whole system, all eight county airports. If this passes, it’s all going away.”

Ricardo Villa, president of the San Diego County Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, said the business group opposes the ordinance because it puts minority- and immigrant-owned businesses that lease property from the county at a disadvantage.

“These businesses pay market-rate lease rates,” Villa wrote. “It is not fair to have them operate by a different set of rules, especially since many of these businesses are merely trying to survive and remain competitive coming out of the COVID-19 pandemic.”

Villa said business owners, many of whom are people of color, immigrants and women-owned businesses, will be forced to lay off workers, relocate or close altogether.

El Cajon City Manager Graham Mitchell said a survey of Gillespie and Palomar airport employers show that “between 59 percent and 67 percent of employees are non-white,” and that the ordinance disproportionately takes jobs away from communities of color and disadvantaged communities.

Of particular concern, Mitchell said, is a recently approved project that would provide up to 500 jobs. He said a developer’s plan to build a 142,746-square-foot warehouse — reportedly a last-mile Amazon distribution site — on county property near Gillespie Field appears to be dead because of the ordinance.

“We were weeks away from breaking ground when we learned the details of the county’s proposal,” said Lee Chesnut, whose company Chestnut Properties owns the land where Amazon is supposed to be built. “We were ready to bring over 400 new full-time jobs to El Cajon. Those jobs are now gone. I have talked to many great employers interested in this 30-acre site. None of them are willing to move forward. The threat of this ordinance has killed any potential for new industrial development. The only way I can hope to bring new jobs to this property is if the county excludes this land from their proposed ordinance.”

Taylor Guitars, which started as a three-person business and now employs more than 500 people, has been operating at a business park near Gillespie Field for 47 years.

Jordan Keglovits, contracts and legal manager for Taylor Guitars, said the company agrees with the spirit of the proposed ordinance, but that it “places an undue burden on our business.”

Keglovits said the company’s pay rate starts at $16 an hour and that it offers 401K plan and ownership benefits, among other perks, to its employees.

“The financial framework of the proposed ordinance would negatively impact our ability to do business, potentially resulting in layoffs and force us to reconsider operating within the county — or both,” she said. “Further, we do not feel the county should be dictating how we run our business nor entertaining an ordinance that gives businesses no indication of what wage requirements may be. This alone makes business planning impossible.”