County Supervisors still weigh furloughs

By David Castellon
Dec. 12, 2011

A scheduled vote Tuesday by the Tulare County Board of Supervisors could result in only about half of the county’s employees having to take mandatory, unpaid furlough days off.

The problem stems from an impasse between county labor negotiators and representatives of Service Employees International Union over the employment contract for about 2,300 county employees represented by the union.

Last year, the supervisors decided to extend for a third year mandatory furloughs into the 2011-12 fiscal year, which began July 1, as a cost-cutting measure.

That would have required most county workers to take 40 unpaid hours off during the fiscal year, while other workers made different concessions to reduce their pay for the year by about 1.9 percent without taking days off.

But the board voted in September to end the furloughs after officials determined that the county’s financial picture for the year would be better than earlier projected.

Because the furloughs were part of the county’s labor contracts, collective bargaining units representing various groups of county workers have to agree to changes in their contracts to end the furloughs.

According to a news report issued Friday, nine Tulare County bargaining units accepted the furlough suspension with the exception of SEIU. Instead, SEIU representatives made a number of counterproposals, which included discontinuing a freeze on merit [pay] increases and promotions, among other items.

The union represents clerical staff, social workers, lower-level supervisors, most computer technicians and detention service officers working for the county.

Greg Gomez, president of the Tulare County chapter of SEIU Local 521, said earlier in the year that negotiations over the county’s labor contract with SEIU-represented employees broke down. The key issue: merit pay raises.

The county suspended the raises in SEIU’s prior two-year contract, and the union maintains that contract — which ended July 31 — included a provision that the step increases would be restored and employees who would have been entitled to pay increases during the two-year suspension would have their pay rates upgraded to those higher levels this fiscal year.

Gomez estimated that close to 1,000 county employees in his union would be entitled had the county honored the agreement.

In July, after announcing an impasse in contract negotiations with SEIU, the supervisors approved a contract based on the county’s best offer, which didn’t include restoration of step pay increases.

Gomez maintains that since his union didn’t agree to the terms, the county workers in his union have been without a contract since Aug. 1.

“That’s not a contract. That’s an imposition. They imposed their terms and conditions,” he said.

After the county announced plans to end this year’s employee furloughs, SEIU officials said they planned to use the furlough discussions to try to get the county to negotiate on the step pay issue.

SEIU also presented the county with proposals on 19 other matters to negotiate into the contract, according to a report to the supervisors from the county Human Resources and Development Department.

“At the conclusion of the fifth and final meeting in three months, the county issued its last and final offer to SEIU on Nov. 16” and on Dec. 7, a union representative asked if the county would place the furlough suspension matter on the board’s agenda, the report states. “We understand from this message that SEIU does not accept the county offer and that the parties are again at an impasse.”

“We told them they have an obligation to negotiate a contract with us,” Gomez said.

Gomez said that merit pay was one of the issues the union brought to the table and that it was the main one. In fact, one of those issues was an offer to extend the furlough for the SEIU-represented employees to 2013.

He said that 80 percent of members said furloughs were not an issue and that some workers actually like having the time off.

A more pressing issue for them is that many of the workers believe that they are being “ripped off” because their pay rates would be 10 percent higher or more if the county’s merit pay program is restored the way they expected.

“We went to the county with a list of proposals we want from them. They weren’t bending. The only thing the county wanted to talk about was furloughs,” he said.

Tulare County spokesman Jed Chernabaeff said county Human Resources and Development Director Jeff Cardell told him that “Tulare County did discuss the proposals put forth by SEIU for the merit pay and rejected the proposal.”

Cardell was not available Friday afternoon to be interviewed.

During Tuesday’s board meeting, the last one this year, Cardell is expected to ask the supervisors to make no changes to the terms and conditions of employment for the county employees represented by SEIU.

If that happens, their furlough requirements would stay in effect.

Gomez said he didn’t know if he would attend Tuesday’s meeting to address the supervisors before the vote.

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