Tulare County Sues Its Own Employees

Formal charges were filed on September 17 by Tulare County against the Service Employee International Union (SEIU). The California Public Employee Relations Board (PERB) will begin investigating allegations of unfair labor practices against SEIU Local 521. After a presentation by County Counsel Kathleen Bales-Lange and a public discussion, the Tulare County Board of Supervisors (BOS) voted on August 26 to file charges against SEIU as a result of the union’s conduct during negotiations.

The county’s charges include: making regressive proposals, failing to prepare for bargaining sessions, failing to make proposals or counterproposals, making burdensome information requests, violating ground rules, attempting to bargain on behalf of additional employees midway through negotiations, making false and misleading public statements about negotiations, and bypassing county negotiators and attempting to bargain directly with members of the board of supervisors.

“The rules of negotiation were violated by SEIU which caused delays in reaching an agreement for both parties,” said Rhonda Sjostrom, county human resources director. “Ultimately, these delays cost our employees and cost the taxpayers.”

The alleged practices took place between March and July, when SEIU and the county were in negotiations for a new labor contract. SEIU and the county met for 12 bargaining sessions and exchanged additional proposals during the negotiation process.

The BOS approved a one-year contract with SEIU on July 29. The agreement includes a 3% base wage increase for each employee and reinstates the “sick leave buy-back” program. SEIU represents approximately 2,800 county employees who lost $484,000, or an average of $172 per employee, because of delays caused by SEIU, as stated in the filing. SEIU receives a total of $812,452 in dues and fair share payments annually from county employees.

“We as a board are very unhappy with the conduct of SEIU’s paid negotiating team and feel they need to make this right with the employees,” stated Phil Cox, chairman of the BOS. “Their bad behavior caused each employee they represent to suffer financially. The board wants to see that the employees are made whole.”

PERB will send a letter giving SEIU 30 days to respond to the county’s filing. After SEIU responds, PERB will begin investigating the charges. It is unknown how long the process of investigation may take.

As part of this complaint, the county is seeking several remedies for the union’s conduct. In particular, the county is requesting that SEIU be required to pay union-represented employees the lost salary they would have received this year without SEIU’s conduct.

The SEIU negotiation team met October 1 to draft a formal statement about the suit. The statement was not ready to be released at press time. Tulare County employees were ready to talk, though. Lena Case, a negotiator for Bargaining Unit 2, said, “The county is guilty of many of the charges they are filing against SEIU.”

Case also said that it seemed that the board had already made up their minds before hearing the employees side of the story. “They knew how they were going to vote before hearing any public comment. It’s like they didn’t want to hear anything else because they already knew what they were going to do.”

SEIU has voiced their disappointment in the BOS decision to recommend filing what they consider frivolous charges. An SEIU representative expressed dismay that the county would spend $40,000 to sue their own employees rather than helping out the 1,000-plus residents of East Porterville who lack water due to the drought. The representative also pointed out that the BOS has refused to give Bargaining Unit 2, currently in negotiations, a raise while giving themselves yet another raise.

An email from a Tulare County employee who preferred not to be named said, “Honestly, it makes me sick to my stomach to that they gave an elected official a raise knowing the whole time they were generating an automatic raise for themselves. Their rationale for giving that elected official a raise was to bring his salary in line with elected officials in similar positions as his throughout the State of California. As usual they are obsessed with increasing executive salaries, including their own, but will not make that same effort towards thousands of rank-and-file.”

Case echoed the same feeling, saying that most rank-and-file employees’ salaries are lower here than the rest of the Valley, which explains the high turnover rate. She said that someone gave her a job announcement for an entry level janitor position working for the City of Tulare that paid more than her level three custodial supervisor job with the county.

The lack of parity with other Valley counties makes the employees resentful when Tulare County Administrative Officer Jean Rousseau scowls while lamenting the employees’ lack of gratitude. The rank-and-file understand that the BOS brought the county out of the Great Recession, but they feel that the burden should have been equally distributed between the management, employees and BOS, instead of predominantly on their backs.

Rousseau has stated on more than one occasion, when asked about his large compensation package, that he has it because he is blessed. “I believe he really believes this. Let’s assume he does. This thinking and rationale borders on being delusional,” said an employee on the negotiating team. A running question among the team has been if Rousseau is blessed because of his $200,000+ salary including benefits, what does that make the typical county employee making $30,000?

Greg Gomez, Tulare County Fair Board president and vice mayor of Farmersville, said, “I feel that this is just a tactic by the board of supervisors to try and discredit and shame its employees rather than dealing with the situation of low wages and their disproportionate health care which rewards upper management with more take-home pay. The board not only is going after its employees but they rewarded themselves with a 1.5% raise for it. The electorate in this county is being played.”

Another employee stated, “My feeling and/or opinion is that they are using their political power to induce fear and intimidation to the rank-and-file. I pray that many more constituents of Tulare County will begin to request, demand accountability. The potential for this to happen is certainly there. ”

Linda Castillo, employee negotiator said, “If the BOS continues its self-serving ways and attempts to silence our members by intimidation and to be dismissive of their front-line workers’ concerns, then these actions will only serve to silence our members and the public opinion into rallying behind our cause even if in silence. This is a wakeup call for change and diversity on the board of supervisors! “

Kermit Wullschleger, employee negotiator, went to the Lunch Box in Visalia two Sundays ago to hear Virginia Gurrola, running for district 5 against Supervisor Mike Ennis, speak. “She sounded very confident. She sounds determined to turn things around on this BOS once elected. It could happen. When she wins, it would be the best (political) occurrence to happen in Tulare County in a long time.”

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