A hard bargain

Sacramento County’s office workers get short shrift compared with Yolo and El Dorado. Will they strike?

Social worker Jennifer Englehardt joins public employees demonstrating outside county offices on Power Inn Road last week.

Social worker Jennifer Englehardt joins public employees demonstrating outside county offices on Power Inn Road last week.

Photo By Larry Dalton

Sacramento County has a labor problem. The contracts for all of its 20 labor unions expired on June 30. That’s a first, said Steve Lakich, who directs labor relations for the county.

But that’s not the real problem. In fact, Lakich said, the county prefers to negotiate all its labor contracts at once, rather than have to negotiate them piecemeal every year.

However, negotiations with the county’s largest union, the United Public Employees (UPE) Local 1, have stalled. And UPE is contemplating going on strike as soon as next week.

UPE represents 4,500 county employees, about half of the county workforce. UPE members work in dozens of job classifications throughout the county. They provide airport security, teach preschool, provide clerical support and vocational training, and evaluate services for adults and children.

UPE has two bargaining units of equal size for county employees. Non-supervisory welfare workers make up one unit, and office-technical workers constitute the other unit.

Office workers earn wages that are below the median wages of their peers in counties surrounding Sacramento, such as El Dorado, Placer and Yolo counties, said Sandra Poole, executive director of UPE.

Poole said the county uses different standards for different workers—one set of rules for the people at the top of the wage scale and one for the people at the bottom.

For managers, the county looks at “wages earned by their peers in large urban areas—Riverside, San Francisco and Santa Clara,” said Poole. “But when it comes to office workers, the County of Sacramento has a different standard of measurement and uses smaller counties.”

The county and UPE have been in contract negotiations since February 9. A main area of contractual disagreement is over how both parties, in the future, will share the increasing cost of private health care—increasing faster in the United States than in any other country.

“The price of health care is a critical issue for our members,” Poole said. “The county is not proposing to save health-care costs, just to shift them to employees.”

In the four months of talks, UPE negotiators already have rejected one of the county’s proposals for health care. Co-pays, as proposed, would increase from $15 to $25 for doctor visits and medicine.

The county also wants UPE members to pay higher premiums for health care. In addition, the county proposes a new cost structure with four tiers of coverage versus the current two tiers (employee and employee with family). But union negotiators complain that the county hasn’t offered enough detail to gauge the effects of the new rates on county workers.

“We have been unable to get the county to give us the precise prices for the restructuring of the tiers for coverage,” said Barbara LaRochelle a UPE member involved in contract talks and a senior office assistant with the Department of Health and Human Services.

The UPE is instead proposing a “wellness program” to reduce health-care spending.

The main focus of a wellness program is disease prevention—and Poole said that such a program has been introduced successfully in Washington state’s Kings County.

However, all 20 unions that represent county employees would have to agree to participate in such a health-care approach before it could begin. And so far, county negotiators aren’t interested.

“The wellness program sounds nice but does not provide real savings,” said Lakich.

Meanwhile, UPE and the county also disagree on raises for members’ hourly wages.

For the proposed five-year contract, the county has offered a 3-percent raise for the UPE’s rank and file for the first year. “The salary proposals we made are within the parameters of the county’s budget,” Lakich explained. But the increase falls below the consumer price index (CPI) increase of 3.6 percent, Poole said.

“That is not true,” Lakich said. “The combination of the across-the-board wage increase plus the county’s contribution to a first-ever retirees health-care savings account is more than equal to the 3.6-percent CPI.”

Under that proposal, the county would contribute $25 every two weeks to health-care savings accounts for county retirees. They would spend the accumulated savings, an estimated $650 per year, on their health-care co-pays and premiums.

Meanwhile, for those people toiling at the lowest rung of the pay scale, such as clerical workers in UPE’s office-technical unit, the proposed county contract is a mixed bag.

Most importantly, UPE members complain that the county’s offer would lock in substandard wages (when compared with similar jobs in other counties) for the next five years.

“I wanted to cry when I saw that proposal,” LaRochelle said. A 20-year employee with the county, she said she found the offer “extremely disrespectful.”

UPE has counter-offered with an 8-percent raise for all of its members in the first year and then a minimum of 2-percent and a maximum of 5-percent wage hikes for the second through fifth years. In addition, clerical workers such as LaRochelle would see their pay increase to equal that of other major metro areas.

UPE members were scheduled to meet on July 12 and possibly vote to authorize a strike if no contract has been signed with the county. “Our highest priority is to get a contract,” Poole said. The UPE has set July 18 as a possible date for any job action, i.e., a strike or walkout. The county board of supervisors returns from its summer vacation the same day.