The Tulare County Board of Supervisors spent less than an hour discussing its $1.38 billion budget for 2019-20 before giving it unanimous approval at its September 10 meeting, and the union representing the majority of county-employed workers says that’s not good enough.
“They’re purporting to set the county budget with very little input,” said Courtney Hawkins, an organizer with the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) Local 512, which represents some 3,000 of the county’s 5,200 employees.
Prior to the meeting, a contingent of SEIU members took up pickets to voice their displeasure at what they say is a shortchanging of both county employees and citizens.
“We’re here to talk about transparency, lack of investment in community services and lack of investment in the employees,” Hawkins said.
More Public Input
At the center of the SEIU’s complaints is the lack of public discussion of Tulare County’s annual spending plan, specifically the lack of opportunity for public input. What’s needed is greater access to information, Hawkins said, and it should start with a lengthening of the budget-setting process.
“More than one (public hearing) would be a start,” he said.
The single public hearing on the 2019-20 county budget lasted less than 50 minutes before supervisors gave it a 5-0 approval. The process for last year’s budget was almost identical, with discussion lasting just 47 minutes before approval. Tulare County, Hawkins said, is the only municipality he’s aware of that gives so little time for public debate on a spending proposal of this magnitude.
Hawkins also said the county also makes it difficult for those who wish to see the budget numbers before the public hearing. While the county promised to make the budget numbers available 10 days before the September 10 hearing, it did so by posting the 400-page document on the door of the supervisors’ office.
“They wouldn’t even let (SEIU’s representative) take any copies,” Hawkins said. “She had to take pictures with her phone.”
And, it isn’t just union members who are in the dark, says Michelle Jones, Vice President of SEIU Local 512 and a county employee.
“The community doesn’t know (how the county constructs its budget),” she said. “I think we have the right to know how they’re spending our money.”
Tulare County, Hawkins said, should follow Kings County’s lead and make the underlying budget documents available online well before discussion and voting take place. He also believes the single public hearing on Tulare County’s budget is merely for show, with the real choices being made behind closed doors.
“It’s clear they’ve already decided,” he said. “They’ll have a public discussion, then rubber stamp it.”
For Stephanie Souza, a 12-year employee of the Tulare County Assessor’s Office, the protest was an attempt to get voters more involved in the budget-making process.
“We hope the community knows what’s going on so it can change in the future,” she said.
The county will give SEIU members and other county employees a pair of 2% pay increases over the next two years. The 2% figure matches the cost-of-living increases the board approved for itself and other elected officials at the September 10 meeting.
Sabina Ramos, President of SEIU Local 512, said the needs of her fellow county employees aren’t being met by the county’s offer, leading to the picket line ahead of the budget discussion.
“We’re making sure the board of supervisors knows we’re worth more than they’re offering,” she said.
Currently, salaries for those employed by Tulare County are “behind” wages paid in surrounding counties by 17% to 18%, Hawkins said. Fewer than 10% of the county employees represented by SEIU can afford the $800-per-month family insurance plan Tulare County offers.
“We have employees who literally have to decide if they can afford their medicine,” he said.
SEIU VP Jones says the low pay has led many county employees to resort to payday loans to make ends meet.
“We have employees who live paycheck to paycheck,” she said. “We’ve had employees end up homeless because of this.”
In Bad Faith
The county, Jones said, is aware of the problems its employees have in paying their bills, pointing to a loan program the county has offered staff members through a third-party lender as evidence.
Despite this knowledge, SEIU President Ramos says the county’s bargaining unit is not willing to address the pay disparity and its consequences.
“They never really negotiated with us,” she said. “They just stick to what they’re offering, 2% plus 2%.”
The lack of contract talks might be improved if the board took longer before voting, she said.
“(It would) give us a chance to bring it to the board of supervisors before they approve it,” Ramos said.
Costly Ongoing Problem
The problem of low wages for county employees is nothing new, according to retired county employee Susan Grundy.
“I retired 20 years ago, and before that I supervised a core of community health workers. They were low-paid workers, and almost all of them had to have their children and families on MediCal,” Grundy told the board before the budget vote. “Twenty years later, our lower-paid workers have to have their children on MediCal because the county insurance does not provide for the kind of cost they can afford on their salaries.”
Not addressing the problem, she says, is costing Tulare County time and money in the form of replacing workers.
“The county chiefs need to know we are losing employees because they cannot afford to support their families on a county salary in the ways they would like to,” Grundy said. “They seek other jobs.”
Will SEIU Strike?
Given the years-long nature of the wage dispute with the board of supervisors, SEIU members have begun considering a more extreme response.
“We do have goals to replace them (board of supervisors),” Hawkins said.
Despite the county employees’ dissatisfaction with how they’re being treated, a work stoppage is unlikely at this point.
“We don’t want to take Tulare County employees through it,” Hawkins said.
A strike, however, is not outside the realm of possibilities, and SEIU’s members are ready to take that route.
“They seem to be willing,” Hawkins said.