By DEREK MOORE & BRETT WILKISON
THE PRESS DEMOCRAT
The largest group of unionized Sonoma County government workers staged a noon-time rally Tuesday that escalated their pushback against pay and benefit cutbacks proposed in contract talks.
The gathering, which drew about 200 workers to the county administration building, was organized by the Service Employees International Union, Local 1021, which represents about half of the county’s 3,500 employees.
The pressures on county spending are especially steep because of lagging revenues and spiraling pension costs that have contributed to reductions in staffing and services.
Among the sticking points in negotiations is the county’s demand that employees accept a 3 percent reduction in total compensation, including salary and benefits.
Protesters wore the union’s familiar purple colors and stickers that read, “Enough. It’s time to get tough.” Many were bused in from around the county to attend the event, which coincided with the Board of Supervisors’ first meeting after a summer break.
Rally participants hit on what they said was an inequity in how proposed cuts would affect managers and rank-and-file workers.
“A three percent cut for someone who is earning between $50,000 and and $60,000 dollars a year is a lot different than for someone who is making $120,000,” said Lisa Maldonado, executive director of the North Bay Labor Council, a labor coalition that includes SEIU Local 1021.
The rally was the union’s first public event aimed at putting pressure on administrators in contract talks underway since April.
Supervisor Shirlee Zane, the board chairwoman, who was inside conducting the board meeting at the time, later in the day acknowledged the union’s point on equity, but added that the effective cut asked of managers may be closer to 5 percent.
“The fairness issue has to do with citizens, too, and our ability to provide services,” Zane said. “That means we have to do some belt tightening. And that’s everybody. That’s the whole county.”
County Administrator Veronica Ferguson, who called the rally a “show of force,” said she welcomed employees’ engagement in their side of the bargaining.
“We want to see our employees at some point expressing their concern and interest in this process,” she said.
There have been 13 bargaining sessions since April 11, according to SEIU.
The county claims the concessions are needed to control rising payroll expenses, including pension costs, which have grown by 400 percent since 2000.
SEIU argues that in the past four years employees have had their wages frozen, taken wage reductions with unpaid time off or been laid off while managers have continued to receive perks such as county-paid deferred compensation and car allowances. Both benefits help to boost managers’ pensions.
Some SEIU supervisors also receive deferred compensation, but at a lower county-paid rate of 0.5 percent. The rate for most managers is 4.5 percent; for county supervisors it is 6 percent.
The union claims the county could save millions by reducing its management ranks.
County data shows that managers make up 14 percent of the county’s total workforce, one percent more than six years ago.
The current staff-to-management ratio is 6.33 to 1, versus 6.81 to 1 six years ago.
Santa Rosa Councilwoman Susan Gorin drew cheers when she told the crowd that the management-to-staff ratio is “absolutely the conversation that needs to happen.”
Gorin is running against fellow councilmember John Sawyer for the 1st District supervisor’s seat and has been endorsed by SEIU.
Olga Farias-Pascal, a lease negotiator and inspector for the county, said she is being laid off Oct. 1 because her job is being outsourced. She’s worked for the county for 34 years.
She said the county needs employees “who are vested in the community, who care about the community.”
SEIU said health care premiums for employees have shot up 51 percent since 2008 and that 30 percent or more of what employees earn in wages now goes to their health care needs. The union claims that hundreds of employees have been forced to drop their dependents from coverage as a result of these cost increases.
Isabel Palocios told the crowd she had to put her two children on a subsidized health care plan this year because her family can’t pay the county’s higher premium costs.
“My husband was laid off, and I can’t afford it,” said Palocios, a senior office assistant in the county’s mental health agency.
The hour-long rally spilled over into the Board of Supervisors’ afternoon public comment session, where about a half-dozen SEIU speakers raised similar points.
Board members listened but did not respond.
Negotiations between the two sides are set to resume today.