[Kern] County workers tell how the benefit cuts will hurt

Bakersfield.com, Jan. 16

On Saturday Kern County workers represented by the Service Employees International Union began voting on whether to authorize a strike.

While a vote for a strike doesn’t automatically trigger walkouts and picket lines, according to a flyer on the union’s website, the vote does allow the union’s bargaining team to call a strike if they feel its necessary.

The vote is part of a ramp-up to an expected Kern County Board of Supervisors decision to impose a contract on county employees represented by the union that would force about 2,000 SEIU members to begin paying 20 percent of their health care and more than 3,100 of them to begin paying one-third of their contribution to retirement, a ratio that would increase to 100 percent over the next three years.

Kern’s dispute is an echo of similar fights happening across the country as local and state governments look to workers to offset the cost of retirement programs that are desperately short on cash and budgets that are battered by the downturn in the economy.

For Lamarka Banks the wrangling between her union and supervisors creates a very near and personal concern.

“I’m hearing that its going to be two to four hundred dollars out of my check,” said the 24-year veteran office service specialist for the Kern County Sheriff’s Department. “Already I can’t pay my rent out of one pay check. Me and my kids will have to try find a new place to live.”

The county currently pays Banks’ health care premiums and the annual contribution that pension actuarial firms say must be invested on Banks’ behalf to fund her retirement.

If the county wins the pension fight, which an outside mediator has already failed to resolve, Banks would begin paying into both health care and retirement.

Banks, 45, doesn’t see a lot of options to absorb the hit to her income that would cause. She has three children who play in elementary, middle school and high school bands and she already has to avoid fundraisers for them and deny them most of the things she’d prefer to give.

“I’m driving a bucket. We eat in 99.9 percent of the time,” she said. “I really hate that I’ve gotten to the point where I have to tell my kids, ‘We can’t afford that.'”

Since the middle of 2010 supervisors have said they believe all county employees — upwards of 8,000 people — should pay a similar share of retirement and health care costs. Currently most new county employees pay. Thousands of long-term county employees do not.

Supervisors, In negotiations with every county union, have asked for those same two concessions on health care and pension costs.

They say their demands are motivated by financial reality.

According to findings by the Kern County Employees’ Retirement Association, Kern County will have to pay an additional $13.3 million into its retirement accounts in the coming 2011-2012 fiscal year — an increase in total payment from this year’s $193.3 million contribution to $206.6 million.

New supervisor Zack Scrivner said the board has three options.

The county, he said, can “drastically cut service beyond the level that is a minimum to accomplish our mission. We can require people to pay for their lucrative pensions. Or we can layoff hundreds of employees.”

He said he understands that making employees pay into benefits will hurt their bottom line and said he hopes that people like Banks won’t lose their homes or vehicles.

But his job is to make sure Kern County citizens get the services they expect and are paying for and making employees pay is the best option the county has.

Juan Gonzalez, standing on a patch of grass outside the Kern County Roads Department yard on Roberts Lane in Bakersfield, said he doesn’t expect to take a hit from changes to the contract. The roads supervisor said he plans to retire.

But he came out with his workers to talk with a reporter because he believes the proposed cost increases to workers will make a sharp difference in the quality of work his department can do.

“When they hurt at home, they bring it to work,” he said.

Wayne Caldwell, a roads worker who sits on the SEIU negotiating team, said he already pays the retirement and medical costs his co-workers are being asked to begin paying.

But the contract change will hurt him by reducing the number of skilled, experienced workers available to provide the services the taxpayers expect.

“We did good for them during the storm,” he said. “We were the ones who worked our holidays to keep the roads open for people.”

That will suffer, Caldwell said, when people leave the county. He pointed at Gonzalez.

“I can drive a road grader. But what he can do in one hour, it would take me a day to do,” Caldwell said.

Roads worker Larry Veley will feel a more personal hit than Caldwell or Gonzalez.

“I have a little girl at home,” he said.

He said, when he came on board, the contract deal he had said he would pay into health care and retirement for five years and then he wouldn’t pay any more.

Now the county is talking about changing that plan.

“That was the deal. That effects what I bring home,” he said.

Scrivner said he understands about the deal that was made with employees.

But he said supervisors, unwisely, changed that deal in recent years to give employees an increase in their retirement benefits which — it now turns out — the county can’t afford to pay for.

“The employees that are receiving that benefit need to be a part of helping pay for it,” he said.

The roads workers counter that they gave up raises to get the increased benefit and that the county isn’t offering anything in the current deal to offset the impacts to people’s pay checks.

Banks, the office services specialist from the Sheriff’s Department, hopes she won’t be forced to make more hard choices.

“I don’t know where me and my three kids are going to go. I could move in with my mother but there’s already a lot of brothers and sisters there,” she said. “I hope they let us keep our contract the way it is.”

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