Fact check: No winners in Fresno County wage debate

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By Kurtis Alexander – The Fresno Bee

Nearly 2,000 Fresno County employees walked off the job last week over a contract they say left the county’s lowest paid workers with the biggest cuts in pay.

The Service Employee International Union’s strike Monday through Wednesday widely disrupted public services — but has yet to bring county leadership back to the bargaining table.

County leaders, who are trying to reduce labor costs, contend that SEIU employees have been hit no worse than other employees.

So who’s right?

A review of county payroll records suggests both sides have a point.

The 4,100-member SEIU chapter, which represents a wide range of primarily lower-paid workers such as office assistants, received bigger pay cuts last year than most employees — an average 9% reduction in base pay, compared to the 2% or 3.5% cuts managers took.

In years past, however, SEIU workers generally got pay hikes as high as or higher than their counterparts.

“The amount of increases that have occurred in the past was one of the factors we looked at” when making the recent cuts, said county Administrative Officer John Navarrette. “We want to be fair and equitable to our employees.”

According to payroll records, the wages of SEIU members increased an average 4% or more each year between union contracts in 2006 and 2011, before the pay cut. That means an increase of at least 20% over five years.

By contrast, pay increased an average 4% for managers and close to 15% for county supervisors during this time.

SEIU’s primary concern is that the cost of benefits also went up, mainly for health insurance. The county significantly reduced its contributions to save money.

As a result, higher insurance premiums could have eaten up much of an employee’s pay raise. The county health plans, which include several options from a PPO to Kaiser Permanente, vary significantly in price.

“Some employees are paying $600 to $800 a month for medical benefits now,” said Tom Abshere, director of the SEIU’s local chapter. “The bottom line is that raises have not kept up with the costs.”

The squeeze is greatest on the lowest-paid SEIU members, who pay the same rates for health insurance as other county employees. On average, workers pay 33% of the total cost of their health care, and the county pays the rest.

Annual salaries of county union workers start in the low-$20,000s, though some start much higher. In addition to office assistants, the union represents higher-paid correctional officers, social workers and other professionals.

Most members got at least 20% in step and across-the-board raises over five years, factoring in two work furloughs. But some newer employees had a chance to achieve more step increases, for as much as 40% in all over that period. The county doesn’t track how many employees got that maximum.

Salaries for employees represented by SEIU vary from $33,000 annually for hundreds of office assistants, on average, to the $70,000 a year or more for a handful of occupational therapists. Most are on the low end of this spectrum. Janitors, for example, make in the mid-$20,000s a year.

County management starts closer to $45,000 annually in lower-paying posts. The class includes about 400 employees from analysts to department heads. Top management makes more than $100,000 a year.

In the latest round of pay cuts, managers saw decreases of either 2% or 3.5%, depending on the job.

In the prior two years, managers received no pay raises, however. About half got a 3% raise in 2008, and most got raises between 2.75% and 3.5% in 2006 and 2007. Accounting for furloughs, that amounts to a wage increase between 2% and 6% over five years — before the pay cut.

Managers also faced higher health-care premiums.

During last week’s labor strike, SEIU leaders drew particular attention to salary increases for the five-member Board of Supervisors. The board has final say over labor contracts, including SEIU’s.

“The county cuts should come from the top down,” said Cheryl O’Conner, an SEIU member who participated in last week’s strike.

Between 2006 and 2010, the base salary of supervisors increased about 15% after accounting for furloughs, according to payroll records. Most of that came in 2007, when supervisors saw a nearly 13% jump in pay; county policy ties board increases to those received by Superior Court judges, pushing board salaries that year to the $100,000 mark.

County supervisors took a 7% pay cut last year, which put them back around $100,000.

SEIU members, like all employees, also benefit from the county’s pension system. The premium for that varies with the employee’s age when starting with the county. The county, though, covers the bulk of the cost.

Under the pension system, most employees can retire at age 55 with a retirement income equal to 2.5% of their salary for every year worked. An employee with 25 years with the county, for example, gets 62.5% of his pay in retirement.

If an employee waits until age 60 to retire, he can collect as much as 3.2% for every year on the job.

Newer employees get a slightly lower pension.

“The retirement benefits are some of the best,” said the union’s Abshere, “but the health benefits don’t keep up.”

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