County Employees Fight for First Raise Since 2008

Tulare County Employee Lena Case gets emotional giving her testimony while the board listens attentively.
Tulare County Employee Lena Case gets emotional giving her testimony while the board listens attentively.

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.

Chart compiled using publicly sourced information. For more information, see each county’s website.
Chart compiled using publicly sourced information. For more information, see each county’s website.

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.

8 thoughts on “County Employees Fight for First Raise Since 2008

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  1. The BOS doesn’t seem to care that Tulare County incurs all the costs and effort to train people for other agencies, in that new hires work long enough to get trained and have a year’s experience under their belts, then leave for better paying jobs elsewhere. There’s a revolving door in many departments, and it’s very true in the 9-1-1 dispatch center that I’ve worked in for 20 years. We’ve been chronically understaffed for years, the turnover rate is high, and service to the public suffers. From longer times to answer 9-1-1 calls, to fatigue, it’s always a challenge to maintain an acceptable level of response to the public and our officers. To be refused a raise, after the Board has given themselves and upper management sizable increases, is both insulting and unconscionable. The county seems to think the people who actually do the work are nothing more than ‘trained monkeys’ who can be replaced at the drop of a hat. Do the right thing, BOS, and give the workers at least the same thing you gave yourselves.

  2. The employee evaluations are a joke! I have also received the same speech that no one can get above a 5 or 6 unless supporting documentation and proof is submitted. Management in our office is unwilling to do so. Some of our board members believe that we are ignorant folk, so not true! Our county employees deserve better! They only way I can fathom getting a COLA is by going to work for another county or trying to get promoted! I do applaud the two supervisors for not accepting raises during the Great Recession. I think it was the noble thing to do. Now it is time to honor the county employees with a fair contract!

  3. DON’T STRIKE! IT’S NOT WORTH IT TULARE COUNTY!!!! Fresno County went on strike. We not only lost a weeks worth of pay, we lost our homes, our cars and are just catching up on bills 3 years later. What happened to our contract? WE STILL DON’T HAVE ONE! Don’t let SEIU convince you to go on strike. SEIU won’t lose money my frineds, they’ll receive OT and bonuses while your check shrinks. Do you know how much one of our co-workers received from the strike fund? $35 to help cover $900 in rent and a $300 car payment.

    • Zuhp is right. SEIU leadership talks loud, but leaders have no real “skin in the game”. While SEIU organizers are well paid for THEIR time; striking workers receive no such guarantee. And SEIU’s calls for fair pay ring hollow in the ears of state prison teachers–represented by–SEIU, who now earn @10,000 less per year, than their equally employed peers. SEIU’s unprincipled “representation” has COST them thousands of dollars (over the past six years)in income, retirement security, and contributions to the health of their economic communities.

  4. We have to be careful not to make a generalization about SEIU. The folks that we have now that are working with Tulare County to help get the 3400 hundreds workers a equity adjustment after six (6) going on seven (7) years are dedicated, hardworking employees. I’m not disagreeing with Zuhp and Debi above. I’m not trying to minimize what happened to them. I’m just saying that we have some real dedicated hardworking employees from SEIU, including Jo Ann Salazar and Courtney Hawkins that are giving their heart and soul to help the workers from Tulare County receive a COLA. We have no advocates in Tulare County Government at the present time. We do appreciate the help and support from the community of Tulare County. “We the People”, are working for you to make Tulare County a better place to live, work and worship.

    • Kermit, I believe in Unions but I have lost faith and respect for our Local 521 in Fresno.

      The employees could care less about its membership and some of the elected officers are arrogant and belittling. The COPE Chair went on a social media site saying I was uneducated and lacked critical thinking skills. I contacted the director of our local when I was made aware of the post. He has never contacted me and the post was never taken down. How am I suppose to respect a union who allows this to happen. The little respect I had left for SEIU is destroyed. I don’t want them representing me and I don’t want them taking my money.

  5. The entire system is a joke. SEIU doesn’t even have an email address for the local chapter. The Board of Supervisors act as if they are above it all. I have a simple solution. Have SEIU use their lawyers to write and submit a ballot measure in Tulare County that has these simple provisions.
    1. The Board of Supervisors shall be paid no more than the average salary of the working citizens of Tulare County.
    2. The Board of Supervisors will not receive any expenses, perks or additional compensation in any form including retirement other than any other county employee.
    3. The Board of Supervisors shall not have the power change this law without a majority vote of the citizens of this county.

    Well there you have it SEIU. Do you want to support the working class of this county or do you want to play the hush hush let’s make a deal with the board?

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