SANTA CRUZ — Residents of Santa Cruz County who rely on government services will face delays in care starting Jan. 25, when about 1,600 workers are expected to go on strike.
“We expect our members to all be on the picket lines and not cross paths. We expect members to retire from work during the strike,” SEIU Local 521 President Veronica Velasquez said during a press conference with local media Thursday night.
Certain workers, employees deemed essential by their department heads and defined by an agreement between councils, will be required to go to work during the strike. Santa Cruz County spokesman Jason Hoppin said before the conference that management is working to organize essential personnel in an effort to keep the doors open. In some cases, divisions will have to shut down completely, he confirmed.
“We know that at the Health Services Agency in particular, in the midst of a pandemic, all of our response personnel are critical, if not most,” Hoppin said. “But there’s a chance that if you’re trying to get planning permission that won’t happen, or you come in to sign up for benefits, they might not be available.”
Velasquez confirmed that if a worker is subpoenaed by the county, the union will encourage them to come forward and take responsibility.
“(Lawyers) are already in communication as to what this will look like, whether it’s a skeletal team or (not),” said the chairman, a caseworker with the Department of Family Services and in childhood.
Velasquez said 87% of the more than 1,000 people represented by SEIU voted to authorize a strike after reviewing and rejecting the last, best, and final offer submitted by the county attorney in mid-December.
“At this point, workers in Santa Cruz County have no choice but to strike,” she said.
In addition to organizing the strike, SEIU 521 filed an unfair labor practice complaint against the county with the California Public Employment Relations Board due to bad faith bargaining and a continued disregard for health and safety. of its employees during the health crisis.
According to the PERB website, a council officer will be tasked with investigating the charge and deciding whether or not it is serious enough to turn the charge into a complaint. If a complaint is issued, an informal resolution process will begin where the accusing party and the responding party sit down with an agent to come up with a settlement they can both agree to. Without a settlement, a formal hearing is required; in a formal hearing, both sides present their arguments like a trial.
“A proposed decision is binding on the parties unless appealed to the board itself within 20 days,” the state agency said.
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SEIU 521 argues that although it saved money from furloughing hundreds of workers for a year and secured funds through the American Rescue Plan Act, the county did not managed to invest properly in its workers and, therefore, in its community.
Failure to pay staff members properly, said Child Support II specialist Alma Ruiz, has led to understaffing in many departments. In addition to alleged retention issues, the county left more than 500 jobs vacant, according to the union.
“We have a lot of employees in our own county who, at this point, are making decisions between paying rent and buying food. Some siblings are making the choice that the food bank is the only way to survive in a county that is one of the most expensive (in the state) to live in,” said SEIU negotiator Ruiz.
Resources across all departments are needed as poverty rates rise in Santa Cruz County, SEIU members said Thursday. Those living in poverty are residents who depend on the county for resources such as food stamps and home support services, Ruiz said.
“Fairness is a matter of public health,” added her colleague, Meza. “With children…there are impacts on developmental needs and their long-term health as they reach adulthood. This is a big concern from a public health perspective.
The latest and greatest final offer included an 8% cost of living adjustment over the next three years. When asked what it would take to find common ground with the county, SEIU representatives did not offer a specific percentage or percentages in its various classes. They cited a lack of COLAs offered in 2019 and 2020 as inflation reached sky-high levels.
“There’s been a pattern in the last two contracts where the county is significantly underpaying its employees,” Velasquez said. “We will strike until we reach a fair deal with the county.”
Amy Meza, chief public health nurse, acknowledged that during the push for the Omicron variant, the timing couldn’t be worse for a strike.
“That’s the last thing we want,” Meza said. “Really, you’re looking at a strike that has a dramatic short-term impact on the population, but the long-term ripple effect of underfunding the workforce could really be worse than a short-term strike. duration.”
Division and disconnection
The two sides actively provided differing statistics regarding the county’s workforce. For example, SEIU cited an 87% turnover rate in its workforce while Hoppin told the Sentinel that the county actually held an 87% retention rate in said time window. About 165 SEIU workers left last year, consistent with normal county employment trends, Hoppin said. This, bearing in mind the challenges of the past two years that have spurred movements such as The Great Resignation, is normal.
Velasquez acknowledged the disconnect, adding that all of the information the SEIU collects comes from documents the county made public or offered during negotiations.
“We know there are funds, but this begs the question: is the board of supervisors asking the right questions of county management, or is it taking what has been presented to them as fact?” said the president.
Hoppin said there were no funds left from the American Rescue Plan Act, as one-third of it was used to end the furloughs SEIU members have experienced while the other two-thirds have already been allocated. to support services, such as child care. , and local non-profit organizations.
“It’s not just about sitting on a big pile of money. There’s no big pile of money,” Hoppin said. “We couldn’t respect our employees more, especially after the last two years (which have created) extraordinarily trying circumstances… At a certain point, there just isn’t enough money to give them everything. they want… We have to be fiscally responsible to the taxpayers of the county.
Hoppin said after the conference that while the county is hoping for a quick resolution, it is preparing for a long ride.
“It is disappointing that after six months of negotiations, the union has chosen to forego state mediation and opted for strike action,” he said in a statement. “Unfortunately, it is the members of our community who depend on county services and staff – from public health workers to benefits representatives to road repair crews – who will bear the brunt of this decision.”