The largest union of Kern County employees has authorized a strike after negotiations over a new contract fell through.
In a three-week process, members of Service Employees International Union Local 521 voted 91 percent to reject the county’s “last, best and final offer” and authorize the strike, saying the proposed contract did not do enough to reduce high turnover and low wages.
The vote brings about the possibility a work stoppage could take place across multiple county departments for the first time in recent memory. The union represents more than 5,000 employees who work in nearly all parts of county government, from child support to public defenders. Roughly 46 percent are dues-paying members.
For the past two years, Kern County and SEIU 521 have been locked in negotiations over a new contract. The union’s main gripe has been the lack of a cost of living allowance for its employees, who have not seen one since 2013.
Leaders of SEIU 521 hope to return to the bargaining table before moving forward with the strike, but say they are prepared to do so if the county does not address their concerns.
“Our members knew that if they accepted this offer, it would mean closing the doors to improving the lives of the workers in our community,” said Tiffany Sagbohan, vice president of the local SEIU chapter. “When you know that you are locked out of raises year after year, you start looking at other opportunities. That’s what’s happening here in Kern County. The county’s last, best and final offer would make this situation worse.”
As part of the current contract, employees can earn a 5 percent pay bump each year over the first four years of their employment, known as a step increase, if they satisfy expectations on their annual review. Additionally, certain employee groups like Human Service technicians and Behavioral Health employees have received raises over the last four years, and all county employees hired before July 1 recently received $3,000 bonuses for working during the coronavirus pandemic.
But the union says low pay has led to high rates of turnover in multiple county departments. According to statistics provided by the union, one in five positions in the Department of Human Services is vacant, along with a quarter of positions in the Public Defender’s Office and a third of the positions in Public Health Services.
The high vacancy rates lead to a higher workload for the workers who remain, the union argues.
"Our message to the community is that we have seen the hardships you have faced through the pandemic, and we know you are not receiving the care you deserve, and in many cases, depend on to survive," Sagbohan said. "Our fight is about protecting you and protecting the future of this county."
Still, in rejecting the proposed contract, SEIU turned down widespread pay increases for those it represents. The county had proposed a base 5 percent entry level pay increase for all positions, along with a 5.4 percent pay bump for employees who have exceeded the maximum amount of step increases allowed. For employees in the midst of step increases, the county proposed between a 9.5 percent and 13.7 percent base salary increase.
And all employees were slated to receive three additional paid days off during the holiday seasons for the next three years.
The rejection of the last, best and final offer throws a wrench in the county's attempts to fix a persistent complaint among certain employees.
“It is unfortunate that SEIU’s leadership has rejected and worked against the county’s efforts to implement crucial reforms in the way we compensate our employees,” Chief Administrative Officer Ryan Alsop said in a statement. “The shortsightedness of SEIU’s membership vote stymies the county’s genuine efforts to provide meaningful cost of living adjustments to so many of our employees who have been without increases for many years.”
He added in a phone interview that the county hoped to restructure employee compensation in a way that would allow for multiple cost of living increases over the next several years, something that he said is impossible under the current contract structure.
“SEIU leadership’s position on this is easy to understand,” he continued in the statement, “given they have absolutely no responsibility or accountability for managing compensation issues across multiple employee bargaining units, nor for ensuring the long-term fiscal health of the county.”
At its press conference, SEIU was supported by Dolores Huerta, and Delano Mayor Bryan Osorio also attended to show his support. County workers acknowledged they could be negatively portrayed for their actions, but would remain committed to working for better conditions.
“It should be expected that the county will frame us as greedy and ungrateful for rejecting what they consider their best offer, but the truth is their offer breaks promises made to workers when they were hired on, and does little to address the mass exodus of county workers,” said social worker Alicia Aleman. “We love our work. This is our home and it's where we’ve chosen to raise our families, but with the revolving door contributing to our inability to retain workers, it’s hurting those we serve.”