Weary workforce

Amid union-bashing, county worker morale plunges

Sheriff Mike Haley attends a joint meeting of the local governments. Haley says public safety may be threatened by cuts in the county workforce.

Sheriff Mike Haley attends a joint meeting of the local governments. Haley says public safety may be threatened by cuts in the county workforce.


Cindy Vargas, a mailroom worker for Washoe County, stepped to the podium and recalled 2008.

“That year we took pay cuts to balance the budget and avoid layoffs,” she said. “We’ve been taking pay cuts every year since then. When I started there were three of us in the mailroom, now I’m the only one left. I’ve taken on a bigger workload while continuing to earn less money. Now they want a permanent 7 percent pay cut and have begun outsourcing jobs. There’s been no talk of how to bring in more money, only cost cutting measures.

“I’m dedicated to doing my job in the most efficient way. Each day my goal is to get all the mail gathered, processed and delivered to the post office. Unfortunately, I believe my job will be outsourced no matter how efficient I am.”

Vargas was speaking at a meeting of the Washoe County Commission.

Washoe County has had more cooperation from its workers than many local governments in Nevada during the recession. To help each other out and try to preserve jobs, they have taken pay and benefit cuts. In negotiations, they have agreed to pay for more of their health insurance and have accepted higher deductibles along with reduced pay. They’ve had no cost of living increases since 2007. Staffing levels are down.

For their trouble, they say, the county commissioners hired a high-paid lobbyist to try to torpedo collective bargaining at the Nevada Legislature, the county is trying to kill the firefighters union and its safety rules by dropping out of a joint fire system with the city, and county commissioners want more cuts next month.

Morale is low among county workers. There is an anonymous photocopied flyer making the rounds in county agencies, with 15 bullet points, such as: “1. Washoe County employees’ salaries in the past 10 years grew at a rate of 5.4 percent LESS than the growth in CPI [consumer price index]. … 7. Washoe County’s salary ceilings are 4.6 percent below the average of all Nevada public employers surveyed by the Hay Group. … 12. We have about 500+ fewer employees now than we did four years ago. … 13. Staffing levels are at the lowest in five years, about 16 percent less.”

Among the consequences, workers say, are shuttered libraries, slow response to citizen needs, less road repair and construction.

Sheriff Mike Haley has requested a report on how much of a workload surviving workers can bear.

“We’ve lost, and other county entities have lost, a lot of employees,” he said. “And the amount of work required is substantially the same [as before the recession] in many of those areas, yet we have not, in my opinion, done a good assessment of the ability of those remaining employees to do the tasks they must do.”

He said the sheriff’s office works under 377 legal mandates containing time deadlines for when different functions must be completed, whether release of prisoners, court processing, or applications for carrying concealed weapons. If tasks are not completed on time, there can be legal consequences.

“There are many tasks that it is not at our leisure to complete, it is a statutory requirement,” he said.

In addition, he said, some of those time deadlines involve public safety. Response time, the availability of units and other factors come into play.

Use of sick times in county government is at an all-time high, according to one source. The salaries of county commissioners, workers add, rose 9 percent from 2008 to 2010.

“You know, they don’t get enough credit—they, meaning the Washoe County [Employees] Association,” County Commissioner Kitty Jung said. “They have been, statewide, examples of a group coming together and doing for the greater good rather than the personal good, to avoid layoffs. They took pay cuts and don’t get cost of living increases and on and on and on.”

Jung said the Employees Association has also suffered in another way—it is the largest county employee group and its negotiations with the county tend to finish up first. Whoever goes first tends to lose.

“We’re so lopsided,” she said. “Our Washoe County Employees Association is our largest collective bargaining unit and generally will take the harder hit, and they’re tired of going first.”

Jung was surprised by the claim that the county’s lobbyist had been lobbying against collective bargaining at the 2011 Nevada Legislature. But Employees Association official Clara Fells said the county’s lobbyist was present in legislative committee hearings as an opponent of collective bargaining.

“I don’t think we [commissioners] ever took a formal vote on that, if that’s the case,” Jung said.

County commission chair John Breternitz said he is aware of the poor morale in the county workforce and sympathizes, but he said it is inevitable in economically troubled times.

“With the current economic situation, there’s bound to be a reduction in morale just because we’ve had to cut wages, and we’ve had to propose to cut wages, and we have to lay people off. That’s certainly not because of our choosing. We’re going it in as much of an open and a sensitive way as we possibly can.”

He said the only reason for dropping out of the joint fire agency is financial.

Breternitz also said worker difficulties are aggravated by what he called “misinformation” circulating in employee circles. Asked for an example, he said, “Well, for example, the wages of the county commission. That’s a great one because it’s generally thought that we’re making a heck of a lot more than what we’re making.”

Breternitz is certainly correct that commissioners’ pay is a moving target, though county information contributes to that problem. According to a Washoe County job classification schedule posted on the county website, county commissioners earn $58,672.55 a year. But last year’s budget, also posted online, provided $300,356 for the five commissioners’ salaries (that was down from $304,075 the previous year). And an employee-produced leaflet being passed around county agencies shows the commissioner salaries ranging from $96,486.04 for Commissioner David Humke to $85,707 for Jung. Breternitz is listed at $88,990.29. That information is attributed to “County Budget Model.”

The Employee Association’s Fells says it is important that county commissions not get away with blaming the county’s problems on the recession. Another contributor was poor decisions, such as dragging out settlement of a dispute over Incline Village tax assessments.

“Those poor political decisions include the purchase of the Pioneer Inn property at the height of the market—that is now being used as a parking lot—the Ballardini Ranch settlement, cost overruns on the construction of the courthouse, and the latest Incline settlement debacle. The decision to fight that case resulted in a $17 million bill that employees are being asked to fund.”

For Cindy Vargas, an unexpected solution presented itself.

“When a coworker in my department got her layoff notice, I was really worried about her,” she told the county commission. “Washoe County’s future is bleak. Our economy will be the last to recover. She was facing a desperate situation. I started thinking that I could leave the area and start over. Maybe she could keep her job, and I could be laid off in her place? I’m happy to say that it’s going to happen, I’m being laid off at the end of December, and she’s keeping her job.”