Wednesday, December 6, 2023

County of Mendocino Employees Fill the Board Chambers to Protest a 0% Cost of Living Allowance

 County union workers during public comment at Tuesday’s Board of Supervisors meeting [Picture by Sarah Reith]

The Board of Supervisors’ chambers filled to overflowing at Tuesday’s meeting, with county union workers demanding better pay and an end to staffing shortages as inflation climbs. Regional union reps weighed in, too, saying they were dismayed at the county’s offer of a 0% cost of living allowance.

Workers had filed out, chanting, “we’ll be back,” by the time supervisors decided to have a study session on what it would take to craft a living wage ordinance.

The first speaker of the day was Vince Hawkins, a health inspector who spoke about how many of his colleagues have been lured elsewhere by better pay. Purple-clad workers rose silently from seats marked “Unavailable” and raised their signs as he spoke. “On any given day, I could be the only health inspector to respond to complaints or inspections for food facilities or recreational water facilities or well and small water systems, body art facilities, things like that,” he said; when “those three empty seats should be filled with my co-workers to go out and do the job with me. It’s no fun having to go out and do it by yourself.”

Speakers were mostly from the social work and public health sectors, like Heidi Corrado, the county’s public health emergency preparedness coordinator. “One way that many counties and municipalities have been showing appreciation for their employees is through the American Rescue Plan Act,” she noted. “In fact, this was one of the listed purposes of ARPA. Now, Mendocino County has received ARPA funds, but so far, the administration has said nothing and made no proposals, while staff watch other public employees in neighboring counties be acknowledged for their service…these employees come to work even when they themselves were evacuated and living in a shelter; worked at home when they were sick with covid; went to work knowing that they could be called out to respond to a home where everyone in that house was sick. It’s true that you cannot buy that kind of work ethic. It’s true. You cannot buy that kind of loyalty. But it should be rewarded.” The room erupted in a solid fifteen seconds of cheers and applause when she finished her remarks.

The county is negotiating with employee units again today. Asked if county workers are moving towards a strike, SEIU Local 1021 Field Representative Patrick Hickey said in a text that “if the County doesn’t move, we’ll be discussing all of our options at our next General Membership meetings on Wednesday, July 20.”

Later in the morning, Supervisor Ted Williams sought support from the board for a living wage ordinance to help low wage workers earn sufficient pay. “You know, frankly, I just feel embarrassed,” he said as he introduced the item. “It makes me feel like we’re the Wal-Mart of employers.”

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Supervisor Dan Gjerde said the county pays 70 cents in benefits for every dollar in wages for most of its employees, which means that the county pays $34 an hour for a worker earning $20 an hour. “Some of the better private-sector employers are paying about 30 cents in benefits for every dollar in salary, so that turns into $26 at $20 an hour pay,” he said; “so it’s much easier for those contractors (that are hired by the county), to bring their employees in at $20 an hour starting pay than it is for the county.”

Supervisor John Haschak pointed out the irony of asking county staff in departments that typically represent the county in negotiations with employees, to also work on a living wage ordinance. “In this time of real budget crisis and very difficult times even providing anyone with a COLA when the cost of living is going up at 7 or 8%, then I don’t want to see staff time diverted from trying to figure out that problem at this point,” he said.

Martin Bennett, a professor emeritus at Santa Rosa Junior College, co-founder of North Bay Jobs with Justice, and a staff member of a North Bay union, called in to say that Sonoma county and three of its cities have adopted living wage ordinances. “Living wage ordinances have proven to be good public policy,” he declared, saying that UC Berkeley Labor Center and others have proven that they reduce turnover and absenteeism, and increase retention and the quality of services. “Living wage ordinances also ensure that taxpayers do not subsidize employers that pay less than a livable wage, forcing workers to access public programs,” such as MediCare and food stamps. He offered his help and that of staff at the Labor Council, to provide information about their experience crafting the living wage ordinance in Sonoma County, as well as contact information for advocates and staff all over the state, in other counties that have enacted living wage laws.

Gjerde asked about what he called the roll-up effect, when low-wage workers get a raise and their managers demand the same percentage raise to maintain the gap between them, which he worries could result in a torrent of increased pay for employees at the management level. But Bennett said that was unlikely to be a problem. “There are many fiscal impact studies of living wage laws,” he said, including one by the University of Massachusetts of the living wage law in Sonoma County. “The bottom line is this,” he said. “There is a so-called ripple effect when you raise wages at the bottom. But it’s limited.”

The Board voted to direct Williams to work on the ordinance with outside help and minimal staff time, limited to things like providing documents but no lengthy analysis; and for him to return to the full board at an unspecified time with an informational workshop.

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  1. The jokes on Mr. Ted Williams. He might think he is clever with his dig at Walmart and the 200 people that work in the local store, but I wouldn’t leave my job at Walmart where I make quite a bit more than the County jobs they list. I also didn’t need an expensive Bachelors Degree and 5 years experience like they ask for most of their positions in the County with the lower pay. So maybe he should act a little more professional instead of pushing his political view into every statement and issue an apology to those he insulted in his community.

  2. While the bureaucrats cry for more, we the county tax payers get less and less. This is a very unbalanced piece of journalism. Let’s also hear from county tax payers next time and not some minor Marxist, junior college nobody from Sonoma. As for Ted Williams, his demeaning attitude vis a vis Walmart employees is disgusting.

  3. Once again, shame on you Board of Supervisor. You imposed a 10 percent pay cut on the biggest resource within the country a few years back, your employees. With inflation growing above 8 percent you are now giving your employees an 8 percent pay cut. These are same employees that run the shelters when their is a disaster, the ones that cared and ran down COVID within our county. This was after working their regular 10 hour day. Our Country employees deserve to be rewarded before they find an employer that will.

  4. Hope they are now enjoying Bideninflation like the rest of us. You know they all voted democrat.
    If they are unhappy quit and leave all the bennies and perks behind.

    • I work for MINIMUM WAGE. My “bennie” is that I qualify for Medi-Cal. The “perk” is that I feel good about earning $1200 a month to serve my community. I can’t put diesel in my house tank for hot water for my family. I’m grateful for a roof over my head which many in our community don’t even have. Maybe next round I’ll change my vote to Democrat. They seem to be the only ones who care. My family has been here since before WWII. Instead of taking conservative advice and running away like a coward, I’m choosing to stand my ground and fight for my community.

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Sarah Reith
Sarah Reith
Sarah Reith is a radio and print reporter working in Mendocino and Humboldt counties, focusing on local politics and environmental news.

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