The cost crunch

For city employees who aren’t cops or firefighters, getting leaders to acknowledge California cost-of-living sticker shock is a struggle

The city of Sacramento’s tree maintenance workers are part of the union fighting for a cost-of-living increase.

The city of Sacramento’s tree maintenance workers are part of the union fighting for a cost-of-living increase.

Photo by Scott Thomas Anderson

The price tag to live in California is one fewer people can afford—a reality that’s prompted rank-and-file city employees to demand a bigger cost-of-living increase.

Sacramento city officials canceled a round of negotiations scheduled for July 22 with IUOE Stationary Engineers, Local 39, a union that represents the bulk of the city’s employees who aren’t police officers or firefighters. With talks breaking down, a rally was planned the next day at City Hall to remind elected officials that the working-class women and men under their charge can get loud about their livelihoods.

While city officials have yet to seal their contract with firefighters, it’s their clash with Local 39 that’s moved into the public eye.

Among the 1,500 employees Local 39 represents are park maintenance workers, street repair personnel, garbage and sanitation crews, tree trimmers, animal control officers, 311 operators, community center employees, customer service representatives and most of the city’s finance and information technology staff.

Members of Local 39 say it has been more than a decade since they received a significant wage adjustment—a 5% bump in 2006. City records show they also received a 4% increase in 2009. Besides those instances, they’ve never received more than a 2.5% wage increase in any contract.

According to the city’s own internal documents, the cost of living in Sacramento has risen by more than 24% since 2009.

City Manager Howard Chan declined to discuss the negotiations with SN&R, though he did issue a statement that read: “The people who work for the City of Sacramento are the City’s greatest assets. I am proud of the work city employees do every day to serve our community. The City’s labor relations staff continues to work in good faith with Local 39 in an effort to reach a negotiated agreement.”

But for Kevin Calhoun, a program coordinator at the Oak Park Community Center, Local 39 employees have shown plenty of good faith in recent years, including agreeing to voluntary furloughs at the height of the recession. Calhoun said that if the city is at its greatest financial strength in a decade and still won’t take cost of living seriously, then it’s hard to imagine any scenario in which its management will move on the issue.

“All we really want is a fair and equitable increase,” Calhoun said. “We’re not trying to get rich and we’re not trying to break the city. But in this economy we’re getting left so far behind, and for some of us it’s becoming a struggle just to make it.”

Local 39 representative Laura Trapp says the cost-of-living element to the negotiations is vital because, while there have been other wage gains over time, her union members are now paying 8% of their wages toward pension contributions and dealing with rising medical premiums.

Equally daunting, says Trapp, is the magnitude of the city’s housing and rental crunch—what Mayor Darrell Steinberg recently called Sacramento’s “affordable crisis”—which has become a particular burden on blue-collar employees. According to numerous research firms, Sacramento has suffered some of the highest annual rent increases in the nation for three years in a row.

“The cost of living here goes up every year, the rent goes up, the garbage [collection cost] goes up, health care goes up—it’s just not cheap to live here,” Trapp said. “And yet, the city is putting zero dollars on the table for cost of living.”

Trapp added that some city employees in her union are even earning less than what California’s statewide minimum wage will rise to next year.

“If you make a six-figure salary, these percentages we’re talking about might not seem like a big deal, but when you’re making $15 an hour or $18 an hour, these negotiations become really important,” she said. “If you look at the city’s $1.2 billion budget, this is basically a drop in the bucket. So the city approach has been really disheartening.”

Based on employee feedback, most in her union want a 4.5% wage increase and have made it clear they won’t accept another 2% adjustment, Trapp said.

Fabrizio Sasso, executive director of the Sacramento Central Labor Council, said Local 39 includes the kind of workers that most city residents consider important to their quality of life.

“Many of them are the type of employees who are visible to the community,” Sasso said. “They’re not asking for a lot. They’re not even asking for an increase that would actually keep up with the cost of living. Whatever gains they’ve made in their total wages recently has been offset by other things like the housing crisis.”