Tulare County’s plans to suspend mandatory furloughs for its employees this year has hit a snag after the union representing more than half of those workers refused to negotiate on changing its workers’ contract.
The county can’t end the 40-hour furloughs or the other financial concessions some workers made in lieu of them, as they were included in this year’s labor contracts.
The workers would have to agree to remove the furloughs from the labor agreement, said county Chief Administrative Officer Jean Rousseau.
This was supposed to be the third year of the furloughs, intended to reduce the county’s labor costs during tough economic times. But the county ended up with more unspent money from last year’s budget than expected and county leaders decided to use part of the money to offset what the furloughs would have saved.
During Tuesday’s County Board of Supervisors meeting, Rousseau told the board that nine of the 10 collective bargaining units representing the more than 4,600 county workers agreed to alter their labor contracts this year to remove the furloughs and other concessions. The exception was the largest union, Service Employees International Union Local 521, which represents about 2,400 of those workers, he said.
In an interview with reporters, Rousseau said that instead of agreeing to end the furloughs, the union is asking the county to restore, for the represented workers, step and merit pay raises that have been suspended more than two years.
Rousseau said restoring the pay increases would be an ongoing cost and the furlough suspension is planned only for this fiscal year. He said the furloughs could be reinstated next year, depending on the county’s financial situation.
In addition, he said, not all employees represented by SEIU are eligible for pay raises, so it would be fairer to end the furloughs, as it would affect all the union’s members.
But Greg Gomez, a database manager for the county and the local SEIU president, said the union isn’t looking to swap the furloughs for the pay increases.
Back in July, after negotiations on SEIU’s labor contract broke down, the county imposed a labor contact based on its best offer — with the furloughs but no step or merit pay increases — over the union’s objections.
“That means we didn’t reach an agreement on a contract,” Gomez said.
“The county has an obligation to keep negotiating with us,” and the furlough is bringing the county back to the table, he said, noting that discussions are set to resume in early October.
One of the major points of contention is that SEIU officials said they agreed to not challenge the step and merit pay freezes on the belief that the county agreed to restore them in their contracts beginning this fiscal year, which began July 1.
That didn’t happen, said Gomez, a member of SEIU’s collective bargaining team. “We are still expecting the county to live up to its agreement” and want to talk about the pay issue first.
“We pretty much told the county that we are expecting to bargain for a contract, and we aren’t going to talk about furloughs at this time.”