Some San Benito County employees and members of SEIU Local 521 protested their unresolved contract at the Board of Supervisors' Sept. 22 meeting.
Some 50 union members, brandishing banners and bull horns, formed picket lines on either side of Monterey and Fourth streets at noon. They chanted and marched up and down the street, getting cheers and honks from sympathetic motorists. They even sent a contingent of speakers to address the supervisors during the public comment portion of the meeting.
Suzy Caston, a Child Support Services employee and a member of the union negotiating team, said employees have been in negotiations since July and their contract expires on Sept. 30. They’re stepping up the campaign to get a resolution and are prepared “to negotiate the whole day of Monday (the 28th) and Tuesday (the 29th) and it might even be up to the wee hours of the night.”
Both County Administrative Officer Ray Espinosa and Board of Supervisors Chairwoman Margie Barrios could not be reached for comment about the ongoing contract negotiations resuming on Monday and Tuesday. But on the day of the rally, there was a closed-session conference with labor negotiators before the supervisors' meeting adjourned. Espinosa was among the designated representative for the county. Among the county employee organizations represented were two confidential groups, department heads, the employee management group, unrepresented employees, the law enforcement management group, the deputy sheriff's association, SEIU Local 521 and SEIU United Long Term Care Workers 6434.
Caston said the cost of living in San Benito County is high. She explained: “A lot of people think San Benito County is a lower-priced place to live in because it’s mostly rural. But people don’t realize the cost of housing here is almost as high as in Gilroy, Morgan Hill and South San Jose. They’re almost just as high as Monterey County and getting up there with Santa Clara County. Rents here are ridiculous. The price of gas and groceries here are just as much as the surrounding counties.”
“The sad part is that our wages are really low," she continued. "Our wages are comparable to wages in really small rural communities up in Sierra Nevada where they have a lower cost of living. Our county employees are paid about 20 percent less than the cost of living currently in this county. We’re fighting for a fair contract, we’re not asking for the moon. We just want to be able to live in this county.”
Caston pointed out that “it’s not the county’s fault. We’re insured with CalPERS. They jumped up the cost to about 22 percent more. My daughter and I need coverage and I’m probably going to pay $150 more monthly for our health insurance. I’m also going to lose my First Choice level and step down to First Select. This also means I’m not going to be able to choose doctors. I’m going to have to go out of town to find a doctor for me and my daughter. We don’t really make much money and we can’t afford that. The other larger families are looking at $400 to $500 monthly increases.”
She also said the big help union members are seeking from the county is for the employees to be able to get out of CalPERS and into a comparable health insurance plan. “We’re fighting for our lives," Caston said. "The county is on board with that. Realistically, that’s not going to happen this year. But maybe we can come to some kind of agreement for 2016 or 2017.”
Caston noted that since Gov. Jerry Brown has signed ERAF (Educational Revenue Augmentation Funds) the property tax shift measure authorizing the re-direction of some funding for education to funding for local government, “the county’s not going to have to pay (most of its deficit) and there will be extra money to help us.”
She said she is hopeful but still anxious, as she was part of the negotiating team the last time a contract dispute happened.
“In 2013, we were imposed on with a 1.5 percent decrease from our wages because we didn’t settle the contract with the county in time," Caston said. "They had a very expensive law firm negotiating for them. It was a brutal battle. We’re hoping this time will be calmer and we don’t have to get into drastic actions.”
Caston, originally from Monterey, moved to San Benito during Christmas 2002 when she said it was still affordable. Her daughter goes to school here. “I love this community. There’s a down-homey feeling here that people care and reach out to each other. Nobody wants to leave, but nobody can afford to live here anymore.”
Instead of a permanent home, she said, “San Benito is now just a training ground. You come here and get hired. There’s a two-year learning curve at the Health & Human Services Agency and Child Support Services where I work. Some people do their two years then apply at Monterey, Santa Cruz and Santa Clara counties. They make more money and better benefits.”
“We’re also talking with other counties because we try to keep an eye on what everybody’s doing. We’ve even asked the county for comparative studies. But we understand that we’re not going to be paid as much as county employees in Monterey or Santa Clara. We just want to come to a level where we can live in this county.”