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1,600 Santa Cruz County Workers Will Strike Next Week

Public health, social work and public works employees under SEIU Local 521 will walk off the job on Jan. 25 in response to poor-faith bargaining. Council officials expect the strike to delay or entirely shut down some departmental operations.

(TNS) — Santa Cruz County, Calif., residents who rely on government services will face delays in care beginning Jan. 25, when approximately 1,600 workers are anticipated to go on strike.

"We are expecting our membership to all be at the picket lines and not cross. We are expecting members to withdraw their labor during the strike," SEIU 521 Chapter President Veronica Velasquez said during a press conference with local media Thursday night.

Some workers, employees deemed essential by their department heads and defined through an agreement between counsels, will be required to go to work during the strike. Santa Cruz County Spokesperson Jason Hoppin said before the conference that management is working to organize critical staff in an effort to keep doors open. In some cases, divisions will need to shut down entirely, he confirmed.

"We know that in the Health Services Agency especially, in the middle of a pandemic, all of our response personnel are essential if not most," Hoppin said. "But there's a chance that if you try to get a building permit that won't happen, or if you're coming in to enroll for benefits, they may not be available."

Velasquez confirmed that if a worker is subpoenaed by the county, the union will encourage them to show up and fulfill their responsibilities.

"(Attorneys) are already in communication in regard to what that will look like, whether it's a skeleton crew or (not)," the president, a social worker in the Department of Family and Children Services, said.

Velasquez said that 87 percent of the more than 1,000 individuals represented by SEIU voted to authorize a strike after reviewing and rejecting the last, best and final offer submitted by county counsel in mid-December.

"At this point, Santa Cruz County workers are faced with no other choice but to strike," she said.

In addition to staging the strike, SEIU 521 filed an Unfair Labor Practice charge against the county with the California Public Employment Relations Board because of poor faith bargaining and a continued disregard for the health and safety of its employees during the health crisis.

According to the PERB website, a board agent will be assigned to investigate the charge and rule whether or not it is serious enough to transition the charge to a complaint. If a complaint is issued, an informal settlement process will begin where both the charging party and respondent party sit with an agent to find a settlement they can both accept. Without a settlement, a formal hearing is required; at a formal hearing, both parties make their cases like a court trial.

"A proposed decision is binding on the parties unless it is appealed to the board itself within 20 days," the state agency indicates.

Investing In Equity

SEIU 521 maintains that, despite saving money from a year-long furlough of hundreds of workers and gaining funds from the American Rescue Plan Act, the county has failed to properly invest in its workers and, in turn, its community.

A failure to justly pay staff members, Child Support Specialist II Alma Ruiz said, has led to the understaffing of numerous departments. On top of alleged retention issues, the county has left more than 500 jobs vacant, the union says.

"We have a lot of our own county employees who, at this point, are making decisions between paying rent and buying food. Some brothers and sisters are making the choice that the food bank is the only way they will be able to survive in a county that is one of the most expensive (in the state) to live in," SEIU bargainer Ruiz said.

Resources in all departments are necessary as poverty rates increase in Santa Cruz County, SEIU members said Thursday. Those who live in poverty are the residents who rely on the county for resources such as food stamps and in-home support services, Ruiz said.

"Equity is a public health issue," her colleague, Meza, added. "With children ... there are impacts on developmental needs and their long-term health as they reach adulthood. That's a big concern from a public health standpoint."

The last, best, final offer included an 8 percent cost of living adjustment over the next three years. When asked what it would take to find a common ground with the county, SEIU representatives did not offer a specific percentage or percentages across its several classes. They did cite a lack of COLAs offered in 2019 and 2020 while inflation lurched to sky-high levels.

"There has been a pattern in the last two contracts where the county is significantly underpaying its employees," Velasquez said. "We will strike until we come to an equitable agreement with the county."

Supervising Public Health Nurse Amy Meza acknowledged that, during the Omicron variant surge, timing could not be worse for a strike.

"It's the last thing we want," Meza said. "Really, you are looking at a strike that has a short-term, dramatic impact on the population but the long-term, trickle effect of underfunding the labor force really could ultimately be worse than a short-lived strike."

Division and Disconnect

The two parties have actively provided different statistics when it comes to the county workforce. For example, SEIU cited an 87 percent turnover rate in its workforce while Hoppin told the Sentinel that the county actually held an 87 percent retention rate in the said window of time. Around 165 SEIU workers left last year, which is in line with the county's normal employment trends, Hoppin said. That, when keeping in mind the challenges of the last two years that spurred movements such as The Great Resignation, is normal.

Velasquez acknowledged the disconnect, adding that all of the information SEIU gathers are from documents that the county has made publicly available or offered during negotiations.

"We know there are funds, but it begs the question: Is the Board of Supervisors asking the right questions to county management, or are they taking what was being presented to them as fact?" the president said.

Hoppin said that there are no funds left over from the American Rescue Plan Act, as one-third of it went to end the furloughs that the SEIU members experienced while the other two-thirds has already been allocated to supportive services, such as child care, and local nonprofits.

"It's not just sitting on a big pile of money. There is no big pile of money," Hoppin said. "We couldn't respect our employees more, especially after the last two years (that have created) extraordinarily trying circumstances ... At a certain point, there just isn't enough money to give them everything that they want ... We have to be fiscally responsible to the taxpayers of the county. That's the story."

Hoppin said after the conference that while the county hopes for a quick resolution, it is preparing for a long haul.

"It is disappointing that after six months of negotiations, the union has chosen to forgo state mediation and opted to strike," he said in a statement. "Unfortunately, it is those 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."

(c)2022 the Santa Cruz Sentinel (Scotts Valley, Calif.) Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.
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