A county worker restripes part of the stretch of Portola Drive between 36th Avenue and 41st Avenue.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)
Civic Life

County at an impasse: Union workers say they’re set to strike next week; management says deal is fair

During a virtual news conference Tuesday evening, leaders of SEIU Local 521 — which represents public health and social workers and public works employees, among others — said Santa Cruz County leaders had forced their hand by refusing to negotiate in good faith. County officials counter that the deal, which includes an 8% raise over three years, is fair.

Following numerous votes authorizing a strike and demonstrations protesting what they say are unfair pay and working conditions, 1,600 Santa Cruz County workers are set to walk off the job as of 8 a.m. next Tuesday, Jan. 25.

During a virtual news conference Tuesday evening, leaders of SEIU Local 521 — which represents public health and social workers and public works employees, among others — said county leaders had forced their hand by refusing to negotiate in good faith.

“We have been working nonstop through the pandemic, and our workers, our nurses … are burned out,” said chapter president Veronica Velazquez. “They are begging for relief.”

The specific union complaints include:

  • Loss of pay from a forced furlough caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.
  • A high rate of vacancies and turnover in Santa Cruz County offices, worksites, and facilities, which the union claims is due to low wages.
  • Stagnant pay and benefits amid rising cost-of-living and health care costs.
  • Claims of racial disparities in pay.

Several other union members — including a social worker and a nurse — acknowledged the negative impact a strike would have on some of the county’s neediest citizens, but said work conditions have given them no choice.

“This is a terrible time to go on strike,” said Amy Mitchell Meza, a public health nurse. “It’s the last thing we want. … It made me think that county leadership at the highest levels doesn’t understand what people do in these jobs.”

County spokesperson Jason Hoppin said management has offered to have the sides’ differences heard by a state mediator, but the union has so far declined to do so. He said it was disappointing union members have chosen to strike following a six-month negotiation process.

“While we hope for a quick resolution we are prepared for the long haul,” Hoppin said. “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.”

And county Supervisor Ryan Coonerty, in an interview Tuesday, said the county’s offer includes “significant pay increases over a three-year period while protecting health care and a number of other issues the union requested.”

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“All of us would like to pay people more, especially given the difficulty of the work over the last few years, but we need to do it in a way that’s sustainable for the county budget,” he said.

In October, Hoppin specifically addressed the wage-disparity claims, saying pay “schedules are gender- and race-colorblind and largely set by seniority. People doing equal work get equal pay in Santa Cruz County.”

Earlier this month, the union announced it had rejected the county’s “last, best and final offer,” which included:

  • Making Juneteenth — which celebrates the emancipation of Black slaves — an official county holiday.
  • Implementing a 3% cost of living increase immediately following union ratification of the new contract, a 2.5% increase in September and a 2.5% increase in September 2023.
  • Increasing the county’s contribution for health insurance premiums.
  • Giving a 3% increase to all members of the union who have worked in the county for 20 years.

In addition, the county offer includes a time-stepped increase — one immediately after ratification and another in September — for many health care workers that totals between 9% and 15%.

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In a statement prior to the news conference, Velazquez, a senior social worker, said the proposed deal “does not sufficiently invest in community services during a public health crisis.” She said the county has millions in reserves and can well afford to hire more and pay everyone better.

But Hoppin said figures the county provided to the union shows it spent more on salaries during the early part of the pandemic than budgeted. He said he couldn’t say exactly why this occurred, but believed it had to do with extra help the county needed.

Asked if she was concerned that having health care workers off the job would strain a taxed system to the breaking point, and whether the Omicron surge was being used as a negotiating tactic, Velazquez said the union has been negotiating with the county for many months, and will continue to do so until a fair contract is reached.

She acknowledged there seems to be a disconnect about whether there is enough money to pay more workers and fill all of the vacancies — which she said numbered in the hundreds.

“We know the funds are there,” Velazquez said. “It really begs the question: Is the board of supervisors asking the right questions to county management?”

For his part, Coonerty declined to speculate as to the reason for the timing, saying: “It’s not for me to say what their strategy is or isn’t. I think we all want to avoid having a strike.”

And Hoppin said that while a strike would reduce or temporarily stop some services, the county would continue to function if and when it happens. Part of this would involve designating certain health care workers as critical employees, meaning such people would not be able to walk off the job regardless. He also disputed the number of vacancies, saying some of the openings tallied in the figure were for departments that have yet to open — like the public defender’s office — or for temporary workers.

“I don’t know how long this will last, but we’ll be fine,” he said. “We’re a family and this happens from time to time.”

Two strike-related votes have been held in as many months. In December, Velazquez said that 93.5% of voting members had voted in favor of walking off the job. And last week, 87% of members voted to reject the county’s offer.

The union release also says Santa Cruz County Administrative Officer Carlos Palacios’ salary — which it states was $313,567 in 2020 — is proof “the supervisors’ priorities are upside down.”

The website Transparent California, which compiles the salaries of public employees, says that the compensation of Jeffrey Smith, the county executive of neighboring Santa Clara County, was $392,132 in 2020. Charles McKee, who holds a similar position in Monterey County, received $293,408 in 2020. However, Monterey County has a population of about 434,000 and Santa Clara County is at 1.93 million compared to Santa Cruz’s 273,000.

Addressing this, Velazquez acknowledged that Palacios’ salary is not out of line, but said her concern was that he immediately turned to layoffs and furloughs to save money in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic — something she said did not happen in neighboring counties.

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By way of comparison, two of the highest-paid union members — two individuals classified as “physician assistant/nurse practitioner” — received $145,617 in 2020. That is the classification that would receive a 15% increase as of September under the county offer. This does not include the potential for overtime many members would be eligible to receive, which would push the total compensation figure — in some cases — significantly higher.

However, Alma Ruiz, a child support specialist, said that some union members “have to decide between paying rent and buying food.” She said the higher-than-average rate of poverty in the county means there is both a high need for the services people like her provide and a requirement that people doing that vital work be paid fairly.

“If you look at our salary, we don’t make enough to live in this county,” she said.