Santa Cruz County Animal Shelter staff raise alarm over working conditions, labor shortages

Workers and volunteers gather before Monday's meeting of the Santa Cruz County Animal Shelter board of directors.
(Max Chun / Lookout Santa Cruz)

Workers and volunteers at the Santa Cruz County Animal Shelter have been stretched thin in recent years, and voiced their concerns to the shelter’s board of directors Monday. Though next year’s budget includes a 3% cost-of-living wage adjustment, short staffing and the difficulty of performing important, low-cost services are weighing on the workers.

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Dozens of Santa Cruz County Animal Shelter workers and volunteers are raising the alarm about working conditions at the shelter, where they say a crisis of understaffing, low pay and a lack of resources is affecting some of the shelter’s most important services.

About 30 shelter workers and volunteers, along with community members, presented a petition Monday to the shelter’s joint powers authority urging the board of directors to address shelter resource shortages, hire more staff to control the shelter population, and align the shelter’s pay structure with that of the rest of the county’s employees. That petition had received more than 700 signatures as of Monday afternoon.

The joint powers authority is a legally created entity that allows two or more public agencies to jointly exercise common powers. The shelter’s JPA is made up of Santa Cruz County and its four cities.

County public health nurse Suzanne Samson said the shelter has had an increasingly difficult time serving “the most vulnerable of the most vulnerable,” particularly when it comes to spaying and neutering.

“Our shelter is seen by the community as a place where their animals will be safe and where we can help them find adoptable animals,” said volunteer coordinator Megan Carroll. “I want that to continue.”

The Santa Cruz County Animal Shelter
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

Animal Services Supervisor Jillian Ganley told Lookout that the shelter is relying heavily on volunteers and dog fosters to temporarily house dogs for two or more weeks, because there is not enough staff to adequately take care of the animals.

“The reality of our shelter is our intakes have gone up dramatically and our outcomes are slower,” she said, adding that the difficulty in spaying and neutering animals causes more animals to procreate, raising the possibility of packing the shelter further.

“It’s the physical staffing, the veterinary care, the time that people are in the building, relying on volunteers and more,” said Ganley, who largely oversees client services and the foster program. “It goes beyond just how many animals are physically in the building.”

Ganley points to a shelter program called Planned Pethood — which offers low-cost and free services such as spaying, neutering, vaccines and microchipping — as a key aspect of the shelter’s work. Both COVID and the lack of staff caused the shelter to mostly suspend the program, with appointments available only by referral. She says that has greatly contributed to the rising number of animals being brought into the shelter.

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“I’ve seen a huge uptick in the amount of puppies this year in direct correlation with that,” Ganley said, as less spaying and neutering means that more animals are having babies, which then leads to influxes of animals. “If we don’t help our local community, we end up with more animals in the shelter, which then increases our staffing needs.”

Animal Services Coordinator Sarah Goldberg, who oversees animal care and rescue, noted that the Santa Cruz County Animal Shelter is an “open-admission shelter,” which means that it does not turn anyone away. That philosophy brings people from many other jurisdictions, including Santa Clara, San Jose and even Fresno.

“Our motto is ‘open door, open heart.’ If we can’t live by that, that is really hard for all of us,” she said. “I don’t think one person working hard day in and day out is here for the money. We’re here because we love this community.”

Goldberg added that she and other coworkers work through illnesses to keep up the shelter up to speed: “We know that if we don’t, things won’t get done.”

Santa Cruz Animal Shelter General Manager Amber Rowland told Lookout that the shelter is “closer to being fully staffed than it has been in several years,” but that she has relied on both contracted veterinarians and formerly retired shelter veterinarian Dana Gleason to assist with clinical operations. “We’ve kind of been cobbling together clinical services over the last two years now.”

From left to right
Santa Cruz County Animal Shelter employees from left to right: Animal Services Coordinator Sarah Goldberg, Animal Services and Volunteer Coordinator Megan Carroll and Animal Services Coordinator Jillian Ganley.
(Via SEIU Local 521)

Rowland said that hiring veterinarians and veterinary technicians has been a struggle, as a veterinarian shortage has affected shelter operations across the country in the pandemic era. In an attempt to hire and retain more personnel, the shelter began offering hiring and retention bonuses for registered veterinary technicians this year. She said that has helped — a new veterinary technician started last month, and two more are “in the hiring pipeline.” However, generally speaking, she said, the shelter business as a whole is a tough job.

“It’s hard work and it’s emotionally exhausting, and just like any social service, it tends to not be the best paying or cushiest employment,” said Rowland.

Staff members said they have historically been given few raises, and recruiting more workers is a struggle because of the way the JPA pay structure works. That structure has five steps that employees can work their way up over time, with a 5% pay increase at each step. The Santa Cruz County employee structure has seven steps, which means they can reach higher hourly rates than those under the JPA structure. The workers are represented by labor union Service Employees International Union (SEIU) Local 521.

County shop steward Jim Haney acknowledged that shelter staff chooses to work in this field because of their passion, but urged the board to align its pay structure with the county’s, because “people gotta make a living.”

Rowland presented the shelter’s budget proposal for the 2023-24 fiscal year to its board of directors Monday. It included a request for a 10% contribution hike for each jurisdiction under the JPA — the cities of Capitola, Santa Cruz, Scotts Valley and Watsonville, plus Santa Cruz County — as well as a 3% cost of living for staff. The board approved it unanimously, with additional direction to return to the board’s next meeting in August with a clear timeline for when the shelter administration can complete a compensation study for the staff.

Though staff are not currently planning a work stoppage, they say they remain concerned and will continue to push for action.

“The animals are still getting fantastic care, so it’s not the animals that are in a crisis, it’s the workers that are,” said Goldberg. “We are all burning ourselves out to make that happen.”

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