Workers press the supes

Butte County employees packed the Board of Supervisors chamber at the board’s regular meeting Tuesday to protest what they claim is a raw deal being offered them by county administrators in negotiations over salaries and health benefits.

“I’ve had to cancel my insurance for my children,” county behavioral health medical records technician Polly Evans told the board “My children are eligible for free lunches at school.”

About a half dozen county employees shared similar stories with the board during a public comment period that was moved up several hours to accommodate the schedules of the 100 or so workers in attendance, all members of the Butte County Employees Association, which represents some 828 county employees, just over 40 percent of the county workforce.

Rudy Jenkins, executive director of the union, said the county is using a flawed study to compare wages and benefits of its workers to those of other counties and is using a “take it or leave it” approach to negotiating a new contract. While Jenkins said he considers the study and the new contract to be separate issues, he accused the county of lumping the two together to come up with a tiered deal that benefits more tenured employees while punishing newer hires.

“Why would some of these new people want to wait seven years for what other employees got in five?” Jenkins asked. “It creates a substandard wage for those on the bottom and causes the county to recruit people it might not really want.”

Jenkins also said the county’s offer, which asks workers to go Dutch on an expected increase in health care premiums, hurts those county workers at the lower end of the pay scale by not asking them to pay a share more in proportion to their income.

Two senior grounds maintenance workers interviewed outside the meeting said that after working for the county for eight years, they both felt that they deserved a decent raise, especially with the cost of health care increasing. Both said that the 1 percent COLAs received last year just barely covered rises in health care costs.

“We haven’t had a raise in three years,” said John Kramer, who said he takes home $1,800 a month for designing and supervising the construction of county landscaping. “A lot of guys are feeling trapped. I may have to go back to school and do something else. What happens is they get more inexperienced guys coming in. Instead of paying to keep us around, they’ll end up having contractors doing the work. That’s not going to save them anything.”

County CAO Paul McIntosh said in a phone interview that the BCEA was dragging its feet in negotiations and mischaracterizing nearly everything about the county’s latest offer. He said the seven-step approach maligned by the BCEA was actually the fairest way to raise salaries for both new hires and longtime employees and that the study called flawed by Jenkins is an objective analysis that shows that the county, for the most part, pays its workers the going rate.

“The BCEA represents 157 job classifications at the county, and when we asked them to provide us information on errors in the study, they were able to provide us with 10, which we’ve made corrections on,” McIntosh said. “Naturally, in a survey with so much data, there’s bound to be some errors. This is not a subjective analysis of anything.”

The county is offering increases of more than $4 million over the three-year contract period, averaging 15 percent increases in wages and 2 percent COLAs in each of the final two years in exchange for employees paying half of an expected 10 percent increase in health insurance costs, McIntosh said.

“If you look at the statistical comparisons with [comparable] counties, you look at median wage, you look at household income, you look at cost of living, Butte County is about 97 percent of what that median would be, and yet we’re proposing to implement at 100 percent of that median. We’re absolutely confident that we’ve put a very generous compensation package on the table and eight of our nine bargaining units agree with us.”

As for workers like Polly Evans, McIntosh said, “Our employees are our most valuable resource, but we look at what we pay an employee based upon their job classification, not their life situation or their family situation. Our proposal is based on the job market, not something that we subjectively want to or don’t want to give to our employees.”