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Santa Maria Sun / News

The following article was posted on September 3rd, 2013, in the Santa Maria Sun - Volume 14, Issue 26 [ Submit a Story ]
The following articles were printed from Santa Maria Sun [santamariasun.com] - Volume 14, Issue 26

Santa Barbara County employees want better contracts

BY CAMILLIA LANHAM

Budgeting sucks. The process isn’t black and white; it’s more of a fuzzy, tedious burden to move money around until it fits in all the right places.

Now imagine doing that with more than $800 million. And you aren’t the sole decision maker; it’s up to you and four others to make choices that will impact 430,000 citizens and thousands of employees. Sounds daunting, right?

Santa Barbara County supervisors finalized the 2013-2014 budgets in June, but many county employees made clear their displeasure at the Aug. 27 Board of Supervisors meeting.

Workers from SEIU Local 620 and SEIU Local 721 sat alongside workers from the Homecare Providers Union and spilled out of the Santa Maria boardroom. They spoke up during the public comment portion of the meeting, expressing dissatisfaction with the status of their labor contract negotiations.

Many workers told supervisors they simply don’t make enough money and are tired of agreeing to concessions because of the economic downturn. Clara McDonald, a homecare provider with the county, told the Sun it’s hard to survive on the $10 an hour she makes, and she doesn’t even have a family to feed.

“With the way the economy is, we can’t live on $10 an hour. You know, once you put gas in your car, there’s hardly anything left,” she said. “Most people doing this job end up putting more time in than they’re supposed to—you’re dealing with human beings.”

That extra time is off the clock and goes unpaid. She added that they don’t get reimbursed for the errands they need to run as part of the job: trips to the Laundromat, grocery store, doctors’ offices, and more.

McDonald has attended the last few Board of Supervisors meetings because she feels the supervisors need to put faces with the unions they’re negotiating with.

The homecare workers union isn’t asking for much, as McDonald sees it. She said the county granted the union’s workers a $1 per hour raise in 2008 or 2009, and then took it back because of the state of the economy.

“We’re just looking to get that dollar back,” McDonald said.

Jeri Muth, the county’s human resources director, told the Sun, “We think it happened,” though she wasn’t exactly sure why or when that wage increase/decrease took place.

Muth said someone was looking through county historical records in order to confirm the claim, but she was unable to get back to the Sun as of press time.

County Executive Officer Chandra Wallar said the county is currently negotiating with the Homecare Providers Union and SEIU Local 620. Both of those contracts expired earlier this year. SEIU Local 721’s contract doesn’t expire until next summer.

Wallar said the county’s economic outlook is better than it’s been the last couple of years, but the county is hesitant to take concessions and wage freezes off the table because of what could happen with the retirement investment rate.

The California Public Employees Retirement System (CalPERS) holds onto and doles out money from the retirement accounts of every state public employee who’s ever worked. Counties and cities put money into the fund every year to feed those accounts, and interest accrues. Wallar said if that investment rate decreases, as is predicted, the county will have to contribute a larger dollar amount to the fund.

The rate is currently at 7.75 percent, and could decrease to anywhere from 7.5 to 7 percent. For every quarter of a percent it reduces, the county has to contribute $8 million more into the system.

“The county’s contribution to the fund will be higher,” Wallar said. “That’s why we’re trying to be careful.”

That said, Wallar noted that the Board of Supervisors can choose to do whatever it sees fit, and the county could find other places in the budget to pull the money from.

As SEIU Local 620 Executive Director Bruce Corsaw sees it, that’s exactly what the county should do because the money is there. Since 2011, the workers he represents haven’t received a raise or step increases, which are incremental automatic raises given to workers based on how long they’ve worked for the county.

In that time, the union has also conceded 40 hours worth of furlough days—mandatory days off without pay—and increased how much they pay toward health care. Corsaw said workers’ take-home pay has decreased since 2011.

“First and utmost, we’re looking to end concessions. … We are showing positive growth in the county,” he said. “We’re not asking for a lot; we’re asking for a fair contract.”