BY JAMES BURGER Californian staff writer
Published March 2, 2012
Kern County and the approximately 5,000 county government members of the Service Employees International Union, Local 521, are preparing for a possible strike now that contract talks have sputtered.
On Wednesday, County Administrative Officer John Nilon wrote a memo to county department heads directing them to draft strike plans.
This coming Saturday, union members — from typists and roads workers to librarians and parks employees — will begin voting on how long they are willing to walk a picket line to pressure supervisors to make a deal.
The two parties are headed for a March 13 showdown.
A strike could interfere with some county services, send county managers scrambling to provide front-line services and cost employees hundreds of thousands of dollars in pay.
In January, SEIU launched a three-day strike against the county of Fresno, whose employees it also represents, over pay cuts of about 9 percent.
About 43 percent of the union’s members — some 1,800 workers — participated in the walk-out, sacrificing a total of $850,000 in pay, according to the Fresno Bee.
The most visible public impacts were seen at welfare offices and libraries, some of which closed, the Bee reported.
Fresno County officials eventually returned to the bargaining table with the union. But there’s still no deal.
It’s not the first time a strike has been on the table in Kern County since protracted contract negotiations between supervisors and all 14 county unions began in 2010. Members of SEIU — the county’s largest employee union — voted for a formal walk-out in early 2011.
But this time, with a last-ditch effort to compromise rejected by the county, supervisors seem poised to impose on workers payment of a 20 percent health insurance premium for those hired prior to 1997 — the only employees who don’t yet pay the premium.
The only difference between the SEIU and county offers is how fast senior employees would start paying 20 percent of their health care premiums.
Supervisors want the full amount immediately. SEIU wants employees to pay 10 percent in the first year of a deal and another 10 percent in the second year.
According to Chuck Waide, regional director for SEIU, Local 521, the union has offered a three-year deal that would phase the health care impacts in over two years and add retirement contributions by older employees and a 2 percent raise in both the second and third years.
Supervisors have agreed to much the same deal — with the exception of the health care phase-in and the second 2 percent raise — with the county sheriff’s deputies’ union and indicated to other unions it would give them the same deal.
But supervisors rejected the SEIU offer earlier this week, Waide said.
They plan, Supervisor Zack Scrivner confirmed, to impose the 20 percent health care premium on employees March 13.
Union officials say a lot is at stake for members when it comes to imposing health care premium payments, especially members in less-skilled, lower-paid jobs.
“Custodians and typist-clerks aren’t paid what sheriff’s deputies are paid. And they don’t have the opportunity to earn overtime, like sheriff’s do,” Waide said.
According to January data released to the union by the county Thursday, Waide said, 1,215 SEIU members are not paying health insurance premiums. Some 3,497 members already pay, Waide said.
As of January, 2,719 SEIU members do not make paycheck contributions to retirement, while 2,626 do pay, Waide said.
Carving the health care premium out of worker’s paychecks would reduce their compensation by between 1 percent and 20 percent, said James Geluso, a spokesman for SEIU.
The impact is largest on low-paid workers because the premiums are flat fees based on the level of health care benefit the employee takes.
Many employees could switch to a cheaper health care plan, he said, but that would slash only one-third of the increased cost and would require them to find a new doctor.
Nancy Lawson, Kern County’s top budget official, said the county would save about $5.3 million a year now if all county union members who don’t pay the 20 percent health insurance premium began doing so.
Not all union members would be able to strike.
The county will tell many workers who provide critical health and safety services that they must continue working and — according to a member question-and-answer sheet on the SEIU website — will be cleared to return to work by the union.
In his memo, Nilon instructed department heads to designate those critical workers and carefully document for county lawyers the justification for requiring them to return to work.
Kern County Parks Director Bob Lerude said, for example, that his park rangers will be on the list. They are sworn public safety officers who carry firearms and keep county parks secure.
But workers who care for the parks themselves and the staff that maintain and open the county’s veteran and senior centers may strike.
If the strike is short-term, the parks should survive a bit of neglect, he said.
“If this was in the middle of summer in our parks, and kids were out of school, there would be a lot more impacts,” he said.
But Lerude only has three managers and, if they are required to service all the parks buildings, they would be spread thin. More than one day of a strike would get tough, he said.
There’s a chance the Aging and Adult Services Department workers who provide meals to seniors and open the buildings to meal programs could pick up the slack.
Unless, of course, those workers are also on strike.