Members of the SEIU walking into the board of supervisors meeting on Tuesday.
(Courtesy SEIU / Facebook)

County workers protest working conditions, say they are on the edge of a strike

Saying their concerns about working conditions and pay have not been taken seriously, unionized workers presented a petition Tuesday to the Santa Cruz County Board of Supervisors urging them to take action. Leaders say many members are ready to strike immediately.

Workers from health care, education, and other departments stormed the Santa Cruz County Board of Supervisors meeting this week to voice concerns about their current working conditions, saying they were edging toward a strike.

The workers, all members of Service Employees International Union Local 521 say they are frustrated with county leaders for being unresponsive to the difficulties they have faced over the past two years.

In addition to dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic, workers have been furloughed, and pay has remained stagnant despite a rising cost of living, they say.

SEIU member Leonna Heavens and members of the bargaining unit told Lookout that some workers are ready to strike immediately.

At the meeting Tuesday morning, county workers presented 1,008 signatures calling on management to offer a fair contract and showing their willingness to strike.

“Negotiations have been going on for a long time, and people are starting to get really frustrated because it’s been months,” Heavens said in an interview. “That’s why we’re reaching this point that there are members asking to strike right now.”

Jason Hoppin, communications manager for Santa Cruz County, said discussions with the union have been productive.

“Negotiations are always a process and we’ve been meeting productively with SEIU for months,” he wrote in an email to Lookout. “We’re meeting again Friday and expect to eventually reach an agreement.”

In response to concerns of pay disparity with other nearby jurisdictions, Hoppin said the county believes that pay is comparable to other suburban and rural counties.

Workers say their biggest priorities are reaching an agreement that provides a cost of living adjustment and improved health benefits. They are also pushing for an agreement that takes into account the impacts of climate change and racism.

In pushing for the option for telework, the workers say it would not only have a positive impact on the environment, but would allow them to save money by cutting down on commutes. As for advocating for racial justice, SEIU members say that Latino county workers, in general, are paid 8.7% less than their white counterparts and Latino women are paid 10.1% less than white women.

Referencing the pay disparities, Hoppin told Lookout pay “schedules are gender and color blind and largely set by seniority. People doing equal work get equal pay in Santa Cruz County.”

Regarding the request for telework, he said the county has one of the most progressive telework policies of governments in the region.

“We understand the desire to work from home and support it,” he said. “But at some point, if you are going to serve the public, you will need to interact with the public.”

Wednesday afternoon, several members including SEIU Santa Cruz County Chapter President Veronica Velazquez reiterated to Lookout that if the proposal from the county is anything like what the bargaining unit has seen in recent months, they are ready to strike.