I didn’t enter into public service to become rich, but I didn’t enter it to be driven into bankruptcy, either. Like most of my fellow Kern County employees, I have a passion for service work, and I was willing to trade the higher pay of many private sector jobs for the more fulfilling nature of this work, as well as the stability offered by a defined benefit pension and a high quality health plan.
I began my career with the county in 2000. I enjoyed a couple of step increases and three promotions. The first time we failed to negotiate a salary increase or cost of living adjustment, I wasn’t pleased, but I’d recently been promoted and in those first years, our salaries had yet to fall completely out of step with the cost of living. But now it’s 2021. The cost of living in Bakersfield has risen steadily since our last increase in 2007. On top of that, we’ve all been hit hard by increased costs related to the COVID-19 pandemic. Gas and grocery prices have skyrocketed. My home is worth more than ever but were I to sell it, I wouldn’t be able to afford anything smaller for what I’m currently paying.
I’ve heard our CAOs and the Board of Supervisors claim at various times over the past 14 years that there’s no money, or if there is, paying employees is not the priority, supporting business is the priority. I have heard that the “real” reason the county is sitting on a pile of money but refusing to budge on salaries is that it would “look bad” for supervisors in a conservative region to “give in” to a union. You’re throwing us under the bus over optics?
Let me tell you what looks bad:
Not giving your employees a pensionable salary increase or a COLA since 2007 looks bad.
Not being able to retain newer employees we just invested a ton of time to train looks bad.
Not having a sufficient number of trained, experienced staff in key positions to provide quality levels of service to the public looks bad.
Here’s another thing that doesn’t just “look” bad but has a rippling negative impact on our local economy: When you don’t pay us, we can’t pay anyone else. That doesn’t work in a consumer economy. Years of stagnant wages have finally hit the tipping point. I have spent the last few months canceling or cutting everything I can identify that is not keeping my dogs and I fed, receiving the medical care we need, with a roof over our head and the power bill paid.
Local businesses I’ve had to “fire” or ask to cut back services include: My cable TV provider, my pest control service, my lawn service (I’d do it myself but I have a disability), going to or getting takeout from restaurants. I can barely afford groceries and gas. But each of these businesses, some very small, family-owned companies, employ local people and they are taking a hit, not just from me, but from other county employees who are having to decide which bills to pay this month.
This is not how it should be for a skilled, dedicated workforce, many of whom have decades of experience and/or college or postgraduate degrees. We’ve watched management receive increases by way of reclassification while getting nothing substantial.
We’ve been rolling up our sleeves and keeping this ship afloat by providing services to the public for 14 years while the board sits on reserves and cries poverty. A one-time, unpensionable bonus will help one time, but is not a sustainable solution. It’s time for the board to do its job and compensate its workforce with 2021 rates of pay for each job title.
Karen Briefer began her career with the county of Kern with the Kern County Sheriff’s Office in 2000 and now works as a supervising departmental analyst for Employers’ Training Resource. She is a proud member of SEIU local 521.