Before workers with the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) chapter 521 reached a “tentative agreement” on Sept. 23, they held a rally outside the San Benito County Administration building on Sept. 18 to highlight contract negotiations between the union and county government.
Deputy County Administrative Officer Edgar Nolasco said the county will update the supervisors on the one-year tentative agreement during closed session at the Sept. 24 Board of Supervisors meeting.
County employee and former SEIU chapter president Suzy Caston said the rally was held not only to show support for a fair wage, but also as a way to measure whether workers were willing to go on strike.
“So far we got an overwhelming response on our assessment cards,” Caston said. “They’re tired of constantly having to come out here every one or two years and fight with the county to get something that we deserve to have.”
The union held a rally two years ago during its last contract negotiations. The county and the union agreed to a 7% increase spread over the two years, according to the Oct. 24, 2017 agenda packet. County employees also received two signing bonuses totalling $2,200.
At the rally, Caston said that the county’s last offer of a 2.6% cost of living adjustment wage increase and $300 cash was unacceptable. The union’s last request was a 3.5% COLA increase and $1,000 cash.
Employees were not “asking for the moon,” but for a contract that will give the county a year to complete a class and compensation study, Caston said.
“We provide services to the people of this community and we need to be taken care of. We need to have a fair contract so that we can afford to live in this community.”
Caston said the county offered a health care plan in the current negotiations, but that it doesn’t work for all employees because of limited providers, which could mean an increase of over $200 monthly in health care costs for some. The county also put a cash-only offer on the table.
Negotiations began in July, but Caston said there have been only two or three “real” bargaining sessions. With the county wanting a short contract so that the compensation study can serve as a reference for future negotiations, Caston said employees don’t have the luxury of waiting. She said the increased cost of food, gas, housing and healthcare that have not been met with a wage increase is the primary reason the county has lost over 100 employees in the last two years.
“We have people here that are just barely above minimum wage,” she said. “These are good, qualified people that are serving the community. We’re not just asking for money to ask for money. We’re asking for money so that we have a fair wage.”
David Garcia, a county substance abuse counselor for 13 years and former treasurer of the union board, said the San Benito County Board of Supervisors imposed a 14% reduction in wages “to justify the retirement plans” during the financial crisis of 2008.
“We never recovered from that and for the years we were in recession we never got a decent contract, so we’ve never been made whole,” Garcia said.
A wage increase will help the county stop being a “training ground” for social workers, probation officers and substance abuse counselors who leave the area for better paying jobs once they’ve gained sufficient experience, he said.
“We’re getting to the point that it’s the standard now,” Garcia said. “We expect people to come and go.”
Sylvia Zendejas, a child protective services social worker and member of the contract action team that provides updates on the negotiations to union members, said it’s important for her to work in the community she grew up in.
“It’s not about me, it’s not only about my family, “Zendejas said. “It’s about everybody.”
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