Riverside County officials' decision to unilaterally impose terms and conditions of a new labor agreement is “frustrating and disappointing” for 6,000 union members, who still hope to get a better deal, the bargaining unit's lead negotiator said today.
“We are still hoping to start up negotiations again,” said Catherine Eide Nelson, with Service Employees International Union Local 721. “We can continue to ask for a mediator. If they choose, they can continue to refuse.”
On Monday, the Riverside County Executive Office declared an impasse in talks with the union over a new three-year labor agreement, instead handing the 11-member SEIU negotiating team what Nelson described as a “last, best and final offer.”
“The cost of waiting has grown too great, and it would be irresponsible to spend ourselves deep into debt,” county Executive Officer Bill Luna said Monday. “We can't ignore the realities and make the same mistakes the state has made.”
According to county officials, more than four months of negotiations with the SEIU had produced no consensus on the level of pay and benefit reductions that would be acceptable to both sides.
Nelson said one of the main sticking points was the county's desire for mandatory furloughs. She said under the county's terms, employees will have to forfeit a minimum of two days pay per month, which the union was willing to accept.
“But we can't agree to unlimited furloughs, and the wording of the agreement is that someone could be required to give up much more than two days a month. There's no limit to how many hours or days the county could impose,” Nelson said.
According to the business systems analyst, the county will suspend additional pay for nurses in pediatrics and other specialized fields -- which the union opposed -- and freeze “step” pay increases whenever a worker receives a new classification or title.
In addition to nurses, SEIU represents social workers, accountants, 911 dispatchers and a range of other workers in county government, which employs nearly 20,000 people.
According to the Executive Office, a new labor pact incorporating the county's desired changes in SEIU members' salaries and benefits will prevent the county's $50 million structural budget deficit from widening.
The county is facing a $100 million drop in discretionary income in the current fiscal year -- down 14 percent from last year -- as property tax receipts and other revenues shrink along with the local economy, Executive Office officials said.
The county is diverting more than one-third of its $106 million reserve fund to cover losses incurred because of the state's withholding of revenue for local programs to help plug California's $26 billion budget gap.
“These are extremely difficult decisions faced by every city and county in California,” Luna said. “We must make common-sense choices that families in our county make every day as they deal with this recession.”
He said the 10 percent salary and benefit cuts sought by the county are preferable to large-scale layoffs, which would have been the only alternative.
But according to SEIU, the county negotiating team, led by Human Resources chief Ron Komers, balked at a series of cost-saving proposals submitted by union members following an “efficiency summit” in May.
Union representatives said five of the 84 recommendations, which included consolidating more county operations under one roof and extending early retirement packages to more employees, would have saved $9 million, offsetting some of the county's costs.
“The biggest failing is that from the very beginning, county negotiators declared an intent to go to impasse,” said Nelson, who has worked in county government for 23 years. “This has been the most frustrating and disappointing experience I've had.”
She said a meeting between union representatives and board Chairman Jeff Stone two weeks ago, during which SEIU members showed how some of the county's proposed cuts exceeded the 10 percent mandated by the board, led to positive results, but not enough.
“I have been inundated with employees coming to me, men and women in tears, saying they're going to lose their house,” Nelson said, her voice cracking. “It's very difficult to relay the kind of impact these cuts will have ... It's going to mean more people are going to need to turn to the county for public assistance.”
She said SEIU representatives will be meeting this week with members to gather consensus on how the union should respond to the county's terms, which will be in effect for a year.
“I've had members asking, `When are we going to strike?”' Nelson said. “That's not where I am right now as a negotiator ... I think we should help the county solve its problems. Taking more severe actions will only hurt the county more.”
The board in May voted to cut wages and benefits of county managers, as well as institute voluntary furloughs. All five board members, as well as county elected officials, voluntarily took 10 percent salary cuts, as well.
There are plans to shift some workers to four-day work weeks, leading to the closure of some county facilities on Fridays beginning this fall.
Meanwhile, negotiations are continuing with the Deputy District Attorneys Union and the union representing Probation Department personnel.