Tulare County employees, represented by Service Employees International Union (SEIU), and Tulare County management are engaged in heated negotiations. If the two sides cannot agree on a contract by June 30th, the represented employees will have the option to call a strike.
The SEIU is asking for a three-year contract with an 8.74% raise. Their request is based on the Tulare County Board of Supervisor’s pay raise during the last two years of 8.98%.
The county has countered with a one-year contract and a 0% raise.
Joann Salazar, leading negotiator for the SEIU, expressed that a 0% raise and a one-year contract is an insult and a waste of county resources. “Once you are done with this year you have to jump right in and start negotiating for the next year.” Salazar sees no reason for a 0% increase saying, “The county is not claiming an inability to pay. They are claiming unwillingness.”
At issue is not only the length of the contract and raise, but the fact that county employees have not had a raise in pay or benefits since 2008, while management and the board of supervisors (BOS) has. Salazar pointed out that it’s not right for Chief Administrative Officer Jean Rousseau to be making almost $200,000 a year in a county where 28% of the people are living in poverty. “I think that is bad public policy.”
Supervisor Steve Worthley and Supervisor Pete Vander Poel decided not to accept a pay raise until everyone received an increase.
Linda Castillo, a Tulare County dispatcher who also is on the negotiating team, said that morale throughout the county is at an all-time low. “All the prices go up but not our salaries. Everyone is very upset.” She was told during an April negotiation meeting that county employees were not offered a raise because of the drought and uncertain economic situation. Kermit Wullschleger, an employee who is also on the negotiating team said, “This is a lot bigger than us getting a raise, it’s about the health of Tulare County government. Saving money on the backs of the workers and not the managers will hurt the services provided to all citizens of this county.”
According to SEIU, Tulare County has become a training ground for other counties. “Because we are the lowest-paid employees in the state, some departments have a 20% turnover rate,” said Castillo. If Tulare County invested in their work force they would not have to continue to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars to train new workers on an ongoing basis. Castillo also said she was told during negotiations that the county lowered their qualifications and standards to apply for a job to attract enough people to fill the vacancies because of the high turnover rate.
Tulare County has a two-tiered payment system that did not exist before 1996. That year, the highest paid county employee earned $66K, and a worker in Child Protection Services received $42K. Now, the highest paid Tulare County employee is around $200K yearly while the same CPS worker makes $91K.
Pay inequality didn’t originate in Tulare County, but the pay and benefit scale seems to mirror private industry more than the taxpayer-funded public sector that it is. One of the SEIU members said that for a small county we are too top heavy. “They are going to run out of people to manage if they hire any more managers.”
When management hands me an ‘employee of the month’ certificate, and that person’s children and spouse can go to a doctor and their life insurance policy is $250K while mine is $10K, it sends the message that I’m not worth as much as they are. It’s kind of humiliating.
Unnamed SEIU Employee
Management positions, and all of those not represented by a union, got an average three percent raise in 2013. Rousseau said that they were in a position to give the raises because of the conservative measures the BOS had taken during the Great Recession and because of an unexpected increase in sales tax revenues.
The county ended with a $10 million budget surplus at the end of the 2012-13 fiscal year, yet many feel that because of the inequality between management’s salaries and the unionized workers’ salaries, the windfall should have gone to narrow the pay gap.
Wullschleger said that, “Compensations for management is way beyond what it used to be. The board is so obsessed with staying in line, or above, other industries when it comes to management pay, but they don’t feel the same about the rank-and-file worker.”
The negotiating team for SEIU points out that the Kings County BOS is paid $40K less than that of Tulare County, but that their employees are paid more. In fact, in a study of regional Valley counties, Tulare County workers were paid 18% to 24% less than their counterparts.
Castillo commented, “When smaller counties that actually bring in less revenue pay their employees more, that’s a sign of mismanagement here.” Because of the financial scandal in Bell, new legislation was passed that gives citizens a right to request a county audit. Salazar said that in our case it is not unreasonable to ask for an audit, “because there is something not right.”
In a letter to Sacramento legislators, the SEIU wrote, “We need your help to investigate what we perceive may be a gross mismanagement of taxpayer money. We ask that you support our effort to have the Joint State Legislative Audit Committee approve a State Audit.”
In response, seven or eight SEIU members were invited to Sacramento later this month to visit the Joint Legislative Audit Committee. While in Sacramento the union will be asking the audit committee to authorize a performance and/or financial audit of Tulare County.
Management and the Tulare County BOS did try to compensate workers during the recession, when they couldn’t give raises, The Health and Human Services Agency developed the Tulare County Employee Recognition Program.
According to Jed Chernabaeff, county media officer, “The program recognizes and honors the achievements and contributions of dedicated employees who consistently demonstrate performance excellence. Employees selected receive a framed ‘Employee of the Month’ certificate of appreciation and their names are submitted to the chief administrative officer as a candidate for the Tulare County Employee of the Year award.”
The problem, says Castillo, is that those awards don’t prevent that same employee from being written up the next week for a disciplinary action or laid-off in six months. What the employee needs is more money so they can live with a little more security–like the human resources personnel handing out the awards.
A longtime Tulare County employee, who declined to be named, had strong feelings about the awards program. “Boy, I don’t know where to begin with that. In the last five to seven years, when they do an employee evaluation, they have an unspoken rule that no one will be perceived as working harder than anyone else; so, on a scale from one to ten, no one gets higher than a five or six. How do they come up with a candidate for the award when everyone gets a five or six? How do they choose? It’s so bogus. I don’t pay attention to the awards.”
Another SEIU employee summed up their feelings about the program this way. “When management hands me an ‘employee of the month’ certificate, and that person’s children and spouse can go to a doctor and their life insurance policy is $250K while mine is $10K, it sends the message that I’m not worth as much as they are. It’s kind of humiliating.”
Whereas many of the Tulare County Board of Supervisors are people of faith, and consider all employees their equal, in practice the rank-and-file are not treated equally. And when the employees try to negotiate a new contract and feel like management is not taking them seriously, they probably aren’t.