Changes to exempt employees' pay upset Sonoma County union
Published: Friday, March 15, 2013 at 3:00 a.m.
Last Modified: Saturday, March 16, 2013 at 10:15 a.m.
A short-lived ceasefire between Sonoma County government and its largest labor union broke down this week over last-minute changes to the pay and benefits proposed for the county's highest-paid employees.
The deal, which covers elected officials, department heads and managers, is one of two going before the Board of Supervisors on Tuesday in what could mark the county's first significant move to rein in pension costs for represented and unrepresented workers.
But leaders and members of Service Employees International Union Local 1021 said the recent changes, including some pay and benefit sweeteners for top officials, reneged on promises the county made in order to secure cuts from rank-and-file workers.
"It's like a knife into the back of employees," said Dana Candy, an SEIU-represented senior office assistant in the county's behavioral health division.
Lathe Gill, the union's Santa Rosa-based director, described the initial reaction among members this week as "an uproar," saying it could undermine employee trust in the Board of Supervisors.
Whether the reaction is justified is up for debate.
The changes resulted from supervisors' closed-session meeting Tuesday, where they gave new direction on a package first approved in August.
The revisions include a 16-month extension of county payments into officials' deferred compensation retirement accounts, a largely executive-level benefit proposed to end for all others this year. The equivalent offset for SEIU members is additional county contributions to health care costs and one-time cash payments to employees.
The new package for top officials also would trigger an overall 3 percent bump on cost-of-living adjustments to wages, excluding county supervisors, whose pay would not be increased. SEIU members are set to get the same 3 percent salary boost by late 2015.
Even with the changes, the new package results in deeper cuts for top officials than those negotiated for the unionized workers. Overall, the total compensation loss for the Board of Supervisors is 8.5 percent, more than triple the concessions that SEIU members agreed to, according to the county. For department heads and administrative managers, cuts are more than double the SEIU loss.
"We believe that's a major contribution," said County Administrator Veronica Ferguson, who herself falls into the department heads group. "I would hope SEIU would respect that."
The blowback, however, appears likely to spill over into Tuesday's Board of Supervisors meeting.
Understanding of the two deals remains uneven among county employees. SEIU representatives blamed the county's timing -- making changes only after a recent union contract vote. They said it appeared deceitful.
"They should have been upfront," said Candy, the office assistant.
Several county supervisors declined to discuss their stance on the changes, but defended the county's overall approach to labor concessions.
"The solution that we crafted said this was going to be built on shared sacrifice, with more sacrifice coming from the top," Supervisor Efren Carrillo said. "That's exactly what this agreement represents."
Both deals appear headed for board endorsement. They are at the heart of the county's plans to curb rising pension costs and reduce long-term liabilities to its retirement system, now at $353 million.
The two deals alone could achieve up to three-quarters of the $150 million pension savings the county says it needs over the next decade to make its retirement system sustainable.
Supervisor Mike McGuire described Tuesday's vote as historic, saying the county has never before reduced pension benefits, at least outside of recent state-mandated moves for future workers.
The proposed actions would scale back pension-eligible pay to include salary, a smaller number of job premiums and some cash and job-related allowances. It would eliminate from retirement calculations various cashouts of accrued leave, end-of-career bonuses for department heads and other pension-spiking opportunities.
"The focus should be on what we've been able to achieve," McGuire said.
But tensions between two sides may only be set to escalate.
SEIU narrowly approved the current proposed contract in February on a 52-to-48 vote, and only upheld the vote late last week after an internal legal review. In December, union members strongly rejected a previous package, prompting leaders to draw up strike plans.
A new fight could begin Tuesday, when union leaders may launch a bid for a local ballot initiative that would require a higher number of rank-and-file workers to managers than currently exists at the county.
Union leaders have blasted the county's management costs, saying the latest moves offered further evidence of a problem.
"It's a clear indication that they (the county) haven't changed their tune about reforming management waste," said Gill, the local SEIU director. "It's ridiculous and we're done with it."
County officials have said they intend to study staff-to-management ratios. They also have defended the across-the-board wage boosts, saying the increases were equivalent to those offered by comparable counties and fit with a projected rebound in property tax revenues.
"The discussion was: If we are going to provide cost-of-living adjustments to our union employees, what were we going to do for management and still stay true to our goals coming into negotiations?" said Supervisor Shirlee Zane, describing the board's closed-door talks this week.
The county is in negotiations with its other 10 unions and bargaining groups. Ferguson, the county administrator, declined to say whether they also would be in line for 3 percent salary boosts. Most county employees have gone five years without a cost-of-living adjustment to wages.
SEIU represents about half the county's 3,500 employees. Their members, among the lowest paid in county government, include rank-and-file workers in most county departments except for public safety divisions. They represent about $200 million of the county's $490 million total payroll.
By contrast, the more than 600 employees included in the county's "salary resolution" are many of its highest paid, though the group also includes unclassified and unrepresented workers who do not have six-figure salaries. The group represents roughly $112 million of the total payroll.
Their representatives have largely stayed out of the fight so far. But a leader for the largest unit, the 430-plus administrative managers, waded into the debate Friday.
Without the new offsets, "we would have been taking quadruple the hit" SEIU members did, said Deva Proto, chairwoman of the Sonoma County Administrative Management Council.
"We're not happy about the cuts, but we accept them," she said. "If we did start to get into a fight, it would undermine the organization as a whole. I don't think we want to do that."
You can reach Staff Writer Brett Wilkison at 521-5295 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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