A union employee holds a sign at Tuesday's county board of supervisors meeting.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)
Civic Life

Strike averted: County, union reach last-minute agreement, narrowly avoiding walkout

Hours before some 1,600 Santa Cruz County workers were set to strike, union and county officials came to a tentative agreement that avoided the picket line. The full membership of SEIU 521 still needs to ratify the agreement, and a vote is scheduled for later this week.

After months of bargaining and negotiations, Santa Cruz County and the union representing over 1,600 frontline workers reached a tentative agreement Monday night following an all-day negotiation session.

The agreement came the night before county workers in public health, public safety, social services and more planned to strike.

The new three-year agreement includes wage increases totaling 9% across the board, pandemic hazard pay, and more room for increased collaboration between workers and management to address staff turnover and high vacancies. The previous offer was 8%.

County Administrative Officer Carlos Palacios expressed satisfaction with the deal.

“We are grateful to have reached a tentative agreement with SEIU Local 521 on a new contract and avert a strike,” he said in a statement. “Many in our community depend on the County to help meet their needs and those of their families, and assuring that we can continue providing high-quality services without interruption is in everyone’s best interest.”

Veronica Velazquez, the SEIU Local 521 chapter president, said the agreement delivers far-reaching benefits.

“This is a reflection of collective action and determination,” she said. “We fight not only for the workforce but also for the public — this is a win for both employees and constituents.”

And after negotiations that got tense at times, Velazquez said the bargaining unit is happy with the deal.

“We are appreciative that the county bargained in good faith,” she said. “We are recommending a ‘yes’ vote to the voting members.”

As for what changed the tide, Velazquez said that it was progress on multiple fronts.

“It was not just one thing, but a variety of aspects to recruit and retain staff that allowed us to feel comfortable in accepting an agreement,” she said.

Though the union did not see all of its demands met in the final agreement — such as addressing ways to decrease the county’s carbon footprint — the county told the union it has its own plans for the issue. Moreover, the salary increases have inspired hope that living in Santa Cruz County will be more feasible and alleviate some of the staff turnover that has affected sectors throughout the county during the pandemic, crippling many vital services.

Jason Johnston, a physician assistant working in Watsonville, said it’s been difficult to meet the needs of his practice’s clients.

“Trying to help people without the staff is an uphill fight — I believe half of the positions were vacant,” he said. “We don’t have the nurses or support staff we need, which makes it extremely difficult to help people during a pandemic.

“Everyone who’s coming here has either no insurance and Medicare or Medicaid, a lot of folks are homeless or very low income,” he added. “It is our job to protect the most vulnerable and the entire community.”

Though times are still difficult, Johnston said he hopes the pandemic has served as an eye-opener and that local health care services will begin receiving the support they need.

“We need the investment and the resources to help protect our people,” he said. “That’s what we want to see continue going forward, and this is a very encouraging step.”

Behavioral health worker Jennifer Getzschmann has experienced nearly identical issues to those at Johnston’s practice.

“I believe that there’s over 36 vacancies in my classification alone and that’s not even the biggest classification of staff,” she said. “Those vacancies really impact our mental health services.”

The struggle to keep up with patient needs has affected Getzschmann and her colleagues, too.

“Prior to the pandemic, my team was available seven days a week to provide crisis services, but during the pandemic we had to go down to five days a week again,” she said. “Mental health crises don’t happen just between 8 and 5, Monday through Friday.”

Further complicating staff shortages, Getzschmann said, is that the pandemic has fueled an added need for her services.

“In addition to the pandemic, there’s been a serious mental health crisis in relation to the COVID shutdown,” she said. “Youth as young as 7 years old thinking how it would be easier to not be alive, and an exponentially higher amount of people trying to commit suicide. Our department has really struggled with addressing that.”

While Getzschmann said she is happy with the steps taken in recent days, she knows the fight is not over.

“We’ll be continuing to advocate for our staff and promote sufficient workplace safety,” she said. “We’re going to keep encouraging management and local government to see more than they usually get to see.”

The union bargaining group will vote in the coming week, with the ratification of the deal by the county board of supervisors expected to follow in the week after.