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Sonoma County, workers’ union reach tentative contract agreement


Sonoma County government and its largest union have reached a tentative labor agreement that would provide short-term salary savings and curb long-term pension costs in exchange for some later wage growth and increased county contributions for health-care coverage.

Approval by members of the Service Employees International Union Local 1021, which represents about half of the county’s 3,500 workers, could avert a planned Feb. 28 strike.

SEIU 1021 union members with the County of Sonoma rally in front of the Sonoma County Board of Supervisors in Santa Rosa in 2012. (PD File)

SEIU 1021 union members with the County of Sonoma rally in front of the Sonoma County Board of Supervisors in Santa Rosa in 2012. (PD File)

The walkout was conceived in part to protest pay and pension cuts in a previous deal that union members overwhelmingly rejected in December.

Some of those concessions remain in the new deal, but the county also appears to have done an about-face this week, sweetening the package with cost-of-living wage gains that were not part of the original offer and are not built into its current budget.

The county’s main budget expert, Chris Thomas, the assistant administrator, said Tuesday in an interview that “basic projections didn’t show any room to afford any kind of (cost-of-living adjustments).”

But what emerged from a 17-hour negotiating session Wednesday was a deal that delays those increases until 2014. It was announced by the union on its website Thursday.

County officials insisted the overall package would lead to savings for taxpayers.

Board of Supervisors Chairman David Rabbitt called the deal a “balancing act” between “what the public requires” and what is “good and fair” for employees.

But county officials were tight-lipped about the terms Friday and declined to discuss their revised savings projections, saying they did not want to sway the union’s vote on the agreement, which is set to begin Tuesday and finish Feb. 26.

“I don’t want to talk about the terms of this tentative agreement until we can discuss it publicly,” after the union vote, said County Administrator Veronica Ferguson.

An SEIU leader said members appeared to welcome the settlement, reached in the 11th month of increasingly tense negotiations.

“The overwhelming vibe is positive,” said Lathe Gill, Santa Rosa-based area director for SEIU Local 1021. The union represents rank-and-file employees in most county departments except for public safety divisions. The employees tend to be among the lowest paid in county government.

“Almost everyone we’ve talked to is pleased this is happening,” Gill said.

The union’s previous contract expired in August. The new deal would extend to October 2015. If approved by the union, it would go to the Board of Supervisors in March.

The standoff has been closely watched because any deal with SEIU could determine the outcome of contract talks under way with most other county employee bargaining groups. Agreement with a majority of the unionized employees is needed before proposed pay and pension cuts for managers, elected officials and other unrepresented workers take effect.

County officials say cuts are needed to free up money for government services and public infrastructure, including road repairs, and to pay off long-term liabilities to the county pension system, currently at $353 million.

Union officials have criticized the proposed concessions, which come amid a slow rebound in government revenue and after years of job cuts, pay freezes, unpaid furloughs and other reductions aimed to fill large recession-era deficits.

Under the proposed deal, what has become a five-year freeze on cost-of-living wage adjustments would continue for the next 16 months. Pension changes would go into effect immediately for new and current workers, including greater cost-sharing by employees and limits on pension spiking.

Together the pay and pension changes would aim to achieve a 3 percent annual cut in total compensation for SEIU-represented workers, or roughly $6.8 million over the first 16 months, based on county payroll figures.

It was unclear Friday how much those savings would be offset when the costs-of-living increases take effect.

The county’s total annual pay and benefit costs represent $490 million of a $1.3 billion budget.

For the remainder of the contract, starting in mid 2014, the county would provide a cost-of-living wage boost of 1 percent in the first year and an additional bump of 2 percent in mid-2015.

The salary gains would amount to a total cost of $4.8 million, based on current payroll.

Other costs would come with the additional contributions to employee health care and through a tiered set of one-time payments to each worker, starting at $1,915 and reaching $2,700 for the highest-paid SEIU members.

The cost of county contributions into new health reimbursement accounts for employees could amount to about $4.8 million for the contract term, based on county estimates generated for the previous deal with SEIU.

Labor leaders say the additional health care assistance is needed to address soaring costs that have largely been shouldered by employees since the county capped its contributions in 2008. The county previously covered 85 percent of insurance plan premiums, but the county’s fixed monthly payments of $500 now cover just over half of the lowest-cost plan, said Gill, the SEIU representative.

The previous benefits rollback included a monthly $600 discretionary cash allowance for each employee to lessen the impact, but rising insurance costs have resulted in less take-home pay for workers, especially those with families, Gill said. “It’s been a very significant change for our members,” he said.

County leaders signaled that they were willing to give ground on health care expenses to achieve savings on pension costs, which are more difficult to overhaul.

“The goal of this board all along has been to reset the base, to move costs from the pensionable column to the non-pensionable column,” Rabbitt said.

You can reach Staff Writer Brett Wilkison at 521-5295 or brett.wilkison@pressdemocrat.com.

15 Responses to “Sonoma County, workers’ union reach tentative contract agreement”

  1. Patito says:

    The tentative agreement is a joke and an insult to us employees that have already given and given some more. Two days AFTER the voting starts, we hear that the BOS are once again hiring a HIGH paying position for a Director that was interim and was just hired on making a MINIMUM of $180,000, plus all of his perks that only management get. Why was that announcement made after the voting already started? Why NOW does he need 2 assistants as opposed to the normal 1 position? Shenanigans!! Seriously Tax Payers (all county employees are included in that), why are we not fuming at what has been going on and continues to go on!? The previous and some current BOS are the ones that made the decisions and now that the county supposedly is in financial trouble (there is a balanced budget and maybe now we hear that there might even be a surplus) they want US the SEIU employees to pay for their mismanagement of monies year after year!? This insanity needs to STOP! The PD is very quick to demonize us SEIU employees, hmm, are they perhaps buddies with some or all of the BOS? What are we not being told!? What if anything does the PD get for running such stories making us the SEIU group look so bad in the public’s eyes? There is so much more to the to the story being painted by the BOS as well as the PD. I urge anyone that wants their voices heard to attend today and any meeting going forward. We need to “Stand Together” employees and public alike. We are the one that are being lied to by the people in power!

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  2. Taxpaying Eligibility Worker says:

    The Board of Supervisors approving a brand new upper management position is insulting on many levels. There is no need for an additional Human Services Assistant Director. The HSD Director has not needed two Assistant Directors in the past, why is there a need now? And for outreach? Wasteful and unnecessary. Plenty of managers already do outreach work. What is this new position for outreach really for? Is it really with the public in mind or is it to secure more Federal funds? The more people on food stamps (CalFresh), the more Fed funds roll into the county. However, Eligibility Workers have been chronically understaffed for years and the majority of them now have less than 2 years of experience–many of them less than one year. Perhaps the BOS should spend some time on the front lines with these workers to witness the good hard work being done everyday despite being understaffed and figure out why the turnover rate is so high. Maybe then they will see where that $10,000 per month could really be used to serve the public that voted them into office. I thought the BOS was in good faith looking into trimming from the top heavy management and ways to cutdown on pensionable income. It appears they are more interested in lawyer backed game playing and the fools will once again be the county line workers if this new agreement passes. County workers are part of the tax paying public and deserve a fair contract. We haven’t had a COLA in years, why should we wait even longer while the BOS are some of the highest paid in the state? The public misconception that the BOS has purposely spun is deceitful and insulting to county line workers that earn a small fraction of what management makes. We are hard working people and deserve to be treated and portrayed in an honest light.

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  3. Shepherd says:

    The BO’S is concerned with the pension issue. They are determined to suck from all bargaining units….because, dammit! We need to look good for our constituents! Then why is a new 6 figure job being created for the Human Services Dept? The newly appointed Director, Jerry Dunn, will soon be hiring a second Assistant Director, when before there has always been one. Unbelievable, not only is it a slap in the face to those lowly workers who have sacrificed more than they can afford, but we the taxpayers should be outraged! Who is watching?

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  4. U First says:

    Why would I accept this “deal” when the County Administrator salary and benefits is >$300 thousand (probably over $350 thousand in 2012 with spiking provisions; her newly promoted Assistant salary and benefits is > $225 thousand (an increase of $60 thousand or the equivalent of one SEIU employee) over his prior salary; Department Heads salary and benefits on average > $225 thousand, and they have given up nothing.

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  5. MOCKINGBIRD says:

    This “deal” isn’t any better than the earlier “deal”. SEIU should be talking AFTER the managers and the BOS fix their own salaries and benefits since they are the ones with the pensionable perks and high salaries. The BOS should be setting their salaries to the average of 3 like counties like other county BOS salary decisions are made instead of to the judges’ salaries which are much higher. It’s the managers who retire at more than they made when they worked. Oh, and don’t forget all that county paid deferred comp they will get when they retire IN ADDITION TO THEIR retirement that the county has been paying into since the managers started working. I believe the BOS is 6% of salary. If their income is $200,000, 6% is $12,000 deposited in an account. If a BOS works through 2 terms that ends up being $96,000 in addition to their retirement income. I say that is a ripoff of MY taxes.

    I would rather the money go to hiring more rank and file employees instead of adding more management positions as the county has been doing. Rank and file are the ones who DO THE WORK for the public. More managers means fewer rank and file to meet and greet you, work on that permit you need, get you those food stamps you applied for, process your request for a death certificate, and on and on. They are also the ones who will be responding in a disaster like a flood on the river or an earthquake. They will be out keeping the roads clear, helping people who are in shelters, making sure everyone gets out of danger and on and on.

    One perk that really annoys me as a taxpayer is that the managers who get county cars choose a car allowance instead of a county car. Guess why? BECAUSE IT’S PENSIONABLE AND THE CAR ISN’T. It’s perks like this that drives.
    I think the county employees should vote no with the words MANAGEMENT FIRST as their reason.

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  6. Happy County Employee says:

    It’s article contains inaccuracies.

    The proposed strike is based on charges of unfair labor practices, not the economics of the contract negotiations.

    One employee was threatened with transfer to a less desirable position because of his union involvment and the union received an email attempting to thwart further rallies on county property.

    Those unfair labor practices and others were formally filed against the county with the Public Employment Relations Board. This is the reason for the proposed strike, not the contents of the contract.

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  7. Illegal is Legal says:

    I just read the TA with the SEIU/County – I recommend a “NO” vote! Nothing is detailed what hits the management will have to take or giveback. In the past the management took the hits first, I think they call this “leading by example”. This time it’s a one-eighty, why?

    I smell a BIG rat. Vote no Sonoma County SEIU rank and file employees. The tax payers deserve much better that what is proposed. Remember – lead by example.

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  8. Redwood says:

    It’s the deal that they are both stuck with.

    The pension costs went way up in 2003 when everybody thought the market would never go down and stay down; then they went way, way up in 2009 when it turned out nobody was going to get any cash from big corporations but those that own most of the shares and the CEOs.

    Turns out everybody overinvested in corporations, local governments, CalPers, employees “private sector” holding stock options, mid managers holding stock options, etc.

    With a government budget designed to grow at 2% coupled with a stock market that is currently demanding 7%, and historically produced 8%, there is a mismatch.

    Now the current employees have to get paid for work they actually do. So don’t mope about the last few local, middle class, non-corporate jobs left. Enjoy the service.

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  9. GAJ says:

    @bear, I’ve answered your questions before about how I managed to retire at 51; took many years of frugality and living well below my means.

    Now I have no “guarantees” pay through the nose for Health Insurance and my retirement is dependent entirely on how wise I am investing my money.

    Before we sold our small business there were several times where we thought we’d lose everything, including our house, due to business downturns and the litigiousness faced by small business owners who are unfortunate enough to have numerous brick and mortar locations.

    The politicians have made it more difficult and expensive each and every year through regulation to have a business with 100′s of employees and numerous brick and mortar locations.

    A well meaning bill like the ADA morphed into a feeding trough for lawyers; just one tiny example.

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  10. Robert says:

    Here’s the spin. The county has a balanced budget and has no reason to cut the workers pay.

    Their pension contributions are 7% of the budget. When you are talking over a Billion for a budget, 7% is not a reason to cry chicken little. Sure it is rising. That happens when the county doesnt make a payment for 19 years. Oops, made that bed yourself county.

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  11. Follower says:

    Decisions, decisions…
    The voters last November overwhelmingly voted to give you more money to spend and gave the big spenders complete control over that spending.

    Now you’re faced with the Union making your life miserable if you don’t give them more of the money the voters want spent.

    What to do?

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  12. Sonoma Citizen says:

    Demonizing the SEIU doesn’t fit the facts. The County of Sonoma is an ATM–a cash machine– for less than 100 County insiders who use the unwitting political leverage of the SEIU rank and file to threaten the Supervisors. The vast majority of the SEIU are dedicated honest professionals who do a great job. Their bosses are in league with The Supervisors, County Counsel,County Auditor and Water Agency senior management and campaign contributors whose sole function is white collar fraud. It’s the SEIU rank and file and the taxpayers who pay the price.

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  13. No Surprise says:

    As soon as SEIU utters the “S” word (strike) the Board caves. No surprise I guess when they all took SEIU campaign contributions and were happy with SEUI election support. Can’t wait for the next “S” word (spin) so we can all learn how this raise is really a reduction.

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  14. bear says:

    All the critics who are about to post on this article have NEVER revealed a clue about where their financial interests are, or where their income is derived.

    Therefore, you lack the moral authority to comment on this pathetic deal for County employees.

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  15. MOCKINGBIRD says:

    To start with, SEIU represents about 1700 county employees. This “offer” is not an about face for the county. It offers very little and there is NO GUARANTEE that the county will do anything about their management/rank and file ratio OR cut the managements’ pensionable perks, county paid deferred comp, OR TAKE AWAY THE 3% RAISE THEY GOT IN 2007 which the rank and file DID NOT GET which SEIU has been screaming about since 2008 (and the public should be too, they kept their jobs AND THEIR RAISE AND THEIR PENSIONABLE PERKS AND THEIR COUNTY PAID DEFERRED COMP).

    The BOS are out to “please” the public by hurting the rank and file and balancing the county problems on their backs AGAIN. WATCH FOR A BAIT AND SWITCH on the “cuts” the management are supposed to get. Watch them move the money around and the management will still get what they get now but it will be called something different.

    If the BOS were truly worried about the pension problem they would look at where those payments are going and WHO RETIRES AT MORE THAN THEY MADE WHILE WORKING. It ain’t the rank and file.

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