Barry Hermanson: A Worker’s Hero

by Lorraine Sanders on June 15, 2004

When Mayor Gavin Newsom visited the San Francisco Food Bank earlier this year, Barry Hermanson witnessed one of the mayor’s foibles first hand. According to the San Francisco Examiner, Newsom “marveled” at the number of San Franciscans dependent on the food bank’s generosity.

“Newsom’s a sharp guy, he’s very intelligent,” Hermanson said in a recent interview. “He though comes from a much different background than a lot of people in this city….I hope [his visit to the food bank] means that maybe he’s learning that all around him there is an enormous amount of poverty and people are hungry.”

A longtime workers’ rights advocate, local politician and a key figure behind Proposition L, Hermanson knows a thing or two about San Franciscans in need. Hermanson was instrumental in funding and campaigning for Prop L, the November ballot measure that raised San Francisco’s minimum wage to $8.50. According to John Eller of San Francisco ACORN, “There is no way we could have qualified for the ballot and won in November without Barry’s support.”

The proposition’s popularity with voters, over 60 percent voted in its favor, was the culmination of over five years of work. An undoubted success for San Francisco workers and workers’ rights advocates, Proposition L makes Hermanson proud, but he is quick to point out how much more needs to be done.

“Prop L is an important step, but it is one that did not begin to really address the problem. It is still so far below what is a self-sustaining wage, it is absurd,” Hermanson said.

The real victory will come when San Francisco finally adopts a living wage law that would make it mandatory for businesses to pay their employees enough to live independently, without any social services supplementing their income.

According to Hermanson, the restaurant industry was the only business sector strongly opposed to the measure’s passage.

“Their perspective is, hey we don’t mind raising the minimum wage, as long as we don’t have to pay for it,” Hermanson said. Restaurant owners complained about Prop L’s failure to exclude waiters and waitresses from the wage increase, but Hermanson said the number of employees at upscale restaurants who make the new minimum wage in addition to their tips are so few that a tip credit is unnecessary. Besides, tips are by definition not wages.

“It’s a gratuity that’s paid for service,” Hermanson said. He also points out that not all waiters and waitresses make enough in tips to cover living expenses.

“You work the lunch shift down in the Mission, you don’t make anything. There are very few of those workers that are actually making large amounts of money on their tips,” he said.

Even though some city restaurant owners barked loudly at the proposition’s failure to include a tip credit, Hermanson said that his research showed that 80 percent of all San Francisco businesses and employers would face an increase of less than one percent in their operating costs. Since the city began enforcing Prop L on Feb. 23, an estimated 54,000 workers have seen their hourly wage rise to $8.50.

Before devoting himself to Prop L, Hermanson worked on living wage projects with city organizations and the Board of Supervisors. And, as a small business owner himself, Hermanson knows what its like to manage employees and balance profits with fair pay.

Since 1980, Hermanson has owned and operated Hermanson’s Employment Services, a temporary placement service that guarantees its professional and sales temps at least 75 percent of what it bills companies. Hermanson started his business after a temp job in a San Francisco law firm left him appalled at the raw deal he and other temps were getting. Not only were the temp agencies making a killing off low paid workers, they often refused to disclose how much they billed client businesses for the temporary workers they supplied.

Most temporary agencies pay their temps 60 percent or less of the amount they bill the companies using their services. That means a temporary worker could take home $12/hr even though the company he temps for shells out $20/hr to the temporary agency. And while most temporary agencies require client companies to pay exorbitant fees before they can legally hire temps for permanent jobs, Hermanson offer his employees a no-fee temp-to-perm policy.

But even though Hermason was able to offer his own employees a few dollars more each hour by keeping his overhead low, it wasn’t enough. During the late 1990s, he started to feel like he needed to do more.

“Throughout the 1980s, the vast majority of the benefit and the low margins were going to the workers,” Hermanson said of his company’s operations. “Starting in the middle 90s, the vast majority of that benefit flowed to the businesses. I consequently became very dissatisfied. That’s not what I got in business to do..Since I was having less and less of an impact doing that, I became more involved politically.”

The son of Presbyterian ministers and the recipient of a masters degree in divinity from San Francisco Theological Seminary, Hermanson has always wanted to improve society, but prefers to work outside the church.

“I don’t go to church. I just don’t have much use for the institutional church,” he said. Instead, Hermanson finds politics and advocacy much better methods for creating positive social change.

Hermanson worked with the San Francisco Living Wage Coalition in the late 1990s and personally funded research to determine a living wage for an adult resident of San Francisco. In 2002, he ran for the Board of Supervisors District 4 seat and lost.

“The primary reason I ran for supervisor in 2002 was so that there would be a progressive voice in a somewhat conservative district,” he said.

In 2004, Hermanson once again campaigned, this time for the state’s District 12 congressional seat during the March primary. Hermanson was up against well known Green Party candidate Pat Gray, who has a strong following in San Mateo County. Despite Gray’s prominence, Hermanson said Board of Supervisors President Matt Gonzales suggested he run to create competition and raise Green Party visibility. Hermanson said his presence made debate possible and created more of a buzz around the race. Still, he was not surprised by his loss and heartily supports Gray’s continuing campaign.

“I am happy for her and absolutely do support her,” he said and then added, “It is time that we sent Tom Lantos home.”

Hermanson is now gearing up to oppose a statewide inititative seeking to repeal State Senator John Burton’s Health Security Act, signed into law last year. The Act would ensure access to health care for millions of Californians, and Hermanson is committed to its preservation. He notes that “corporations are participating in a race to the bottom by not providing health care. How are people supposed to live”?

Hermanson’s business background bolsters his argument that higher wages and worker health care are good for business; he hopes California voters shares this assessment in November.

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