Tulare County workers seek return of raises

by David Castellon

Visalia Times-Delta

With the current labor contracts for more than half of Tulare County’s employees set to end Saturday and negotiations at a standstill, county supervisors voted Tuesday to enact four new contracts based on their last best offers.

That decision didn’t sit well with employees of Service Employees International Union Local 521, which represents about 2,343 county employees — just over half of the county’s 4,646 employees — including supervisors, paralegals, clerical workers and social workers.

Representative from SEIU, along with more than 40 of the employees they represent came to the weekly board meeting intent on convincing the supervisors to order county representatives to continue negotiating an agreement on their contract.

The key stumbling block to those negotiations has been step pay, 5 percent salary increases county employees get after their first six months of employment or after they are promoted to new positions, and additional increases awarded each of the next four years until they reach their full base pay.

Budget concerns

Back in 2009, when SEIU was negotiating the current two-year contract, members agreed to not challenge the county freezing step pay increases because of the economic downturn and the county’s tight budget.

“Our team knew that the economy would not improve in a year, and the mandate that we got from our membership was to save jobs,” said Greg Gomez, a database administrator for the county and a member of SEIU’s collective bargaining team.

He said the members agreed, believing that, after the two years, those eligible for step increases would have their salaries set at the rates they would have been if the freeze weren’t imposed.

SEIU officials at the meeting estimated that about 1,100 of its members working for the county would be eligible for 5 percent to 10 percent salary increases.

“This is how we understood it, and this is what the county agreed to,” said Gomez, adding that the county now is unwilling to keep a promise made two years ago.

And the SEIU representatives weren’t the only ones raising concerns over step pay.

The supervisors also heard about negotiations on the contracts for the 189 members of the Tulare County Corrections Association, who provide security at the county’s Youth Facility and Juvenile Detention Facility; the 16 members of the District Attorney’s Investigators Association; and the 86 attorneys in the county’s District Attorney’s Office, Public Defender’s Office, Child Support Services and Health and Human Services Agency.

“We had the same issues in our contract, that after two years the [employee] furloughs would be ended and the [step] increases would be reinstated,” said Greg Powers, a deputy probation officer and president of the Corrections Association.

He said his collective bargaining unit walked into Tuesday’s meeting with an offer to have the step salary increases imposed and then suspended for another two years, but the county didn’t accept the offer.

“We were willing to make concessions during financial difficulties,” Powers said, adding that his union had a forensic accounting of the county’s spending and assets done and determined there is money to pay for the increases because the county has been taking in more than it estimated and spending less than it budgeted over the past five years.

While that may seem fiscally responsible to county residents, it doesn’t make sense to force county employees to make deep financial concessions when they aren’t needed, he said.

Roland Soltesz, a deputy public defender for the county and a member of the Government Lawyers Association of Workers, said that before the step pay freezes, Tulare County offered some of the lowest pay for local government lawyers in the state.

Over the last year, 22 lawyers have left county positions, he said, adding that some of those who left are among the most experienced lawyers in the county.

“They’re making tens of thousands of dollars more when they leave,” said Soltesz, who led the labor negotiations for GLAW with the county.

“We’re only asking for some form of the merit increases to keep us from hemorrhaging,” he told the supervisors, explaining that the lawyers he represents would be willing to give up their fourth and fifth step increases if those entitled to their first through third increases could get them.

“I recommend the Board not send us back to the table,” Kristin Bennett, the county’s assistant administrative officer, said of Soltesz’s suggestion that the board order further negotiations with GLAW.

She wants similar recommendations on the other contract talks.

“We made a good faith attempt to reach an agreement that didn’t cost the county [more] money,” she said, noting that giving the lawyers step salary increases would cost the county about $176,000.

As for SEIU’s request, Bennett said, “They made it clear they are not willing to budge on the merit pay.”

She added that there was nothing that she read in the union’s current agreement that obligates the county to provide step pay increases in the next contract.

“You reduced my pay, and you want to do it for another two years,” Rosaena Arevalo, a self-sufficiency counselor for Tulare Works and an SEIU member, told the Board. “You step on us and tell us to take it or leave it.

“Before you make a decision, try living on my wages,” she continued.

Arevalo’s comments drew applause from the audience, but Supervisor Mike Ennis quickly ordered that everyone be silent.

“We’ll have none of that. We will clear the room,” he threatened.

Kristy Sermershein of San Jose, chief elected officer for SEIU who attended Tuesday’s board meeting, told the supervisors they risked legal action if negotiations aren’t continued.

“Do you choose to take this risk or do you choose to be good stewards of county money?” she asked.

Soltesz addressed the supervisors to voice support for SEIU’s efforts, noting that its members were urged to approve their 2009 contract on the assurances that merit pay would be reinstated after two years.

He added that some of the lawyers he represents might be willing to forgo their demands if it helps the lower-paid workers in SEIU. “Try to give them something, if you can.”

In the end, the five supervisors voted unanimously to impose all four contracts under the provisions of the county’s last offers to the bargaining units.

Supervisor Pete Vander Poel said it was regrettable the pay increases couldn’t be awarded, but all new collective bargaining contracts are revenue neutral.

That means the contracts don’t cost the county more than the last contracts, which include not offering other types of pay increases.

“This is what it is, and we live in tough times,” Vander Poel said.

“Maybe next year they can do something about this for all employees” if finances improve, added Supervisor Steve Worthley.

After the nearly four-hour meeting, Sermershein led a group of employees in SEIU in a chant of “We’ll be back” outside the board chambers. She told the group she would let them know what the union’s lawyers recommend they do.

Besides taking the county to court, Sermershein said a strike is possible, as is asking the California Public Employment Relations Board to compel the county to continue contract negotiations.

Powers said his group, the Corrections Association, will inform county officials that its members will no longer accept the county giving the juvenile corrections officers time off in lieu of time-and-a-half overtime pay.

Because providing security for juveniles in custody is a 24-hour operation and the county is low on workers to do it, having corrections officers work overtime is unavoidable, he said.

“They’ll have to pay us cash for overtime,” which could crimp the savings the county expected to save by not reinstating step pay increases, Powers said.

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