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San Luis Obispo County preparing for possible employee strike

Greta Mart/KCBX

For the first time in county government history, San Luis Obispo County officials are gearing up for a potential employee strike. The county’s largest employee union, the San Luis Obispo County Employees' Association (SLOCEA), wants a higher wage increase than the administration has offered. But that’s not the only issue on the table.

The union is asking for a three percent raise for employees in the 2019 fiscal year. The county is offering a half percent, followed by a two percent increase in 2020.

“The reason [for] a half-percent in the first year, is that the raise was not budgeted for in our budget,” said Wade Horton, San Luis Obispo County’s administrative officer who oversees management of the county's budget. “So we backloaded the two percent in the following year so we could budget for it. That means we could compete against priorities, such as the other services we provide.”

SLOCEA, which represents more than half of the county’s 2800 employees, has been in negotiations with the county for almost a year.

“We’re asking the county to consider these very reasonable requests,” said SLOCEA General Manager Pat McNamara.

One of those requests regards the wage increase. McNamara said it will help counter San Luis Obispo County's high cost of living.

“We’ve had a long, long time to get in the situation that we’re in as far as lagging in the market.” McNamara said. “The employees that we represent are not only public employees in the county but they are also residents.”

McNamara said the county has also reduced callback pay, which he says is a hot-button issue for employees. It’s essentially late night or early morning after hours work for county employees.

“These are people that have to get out of bed in the middle of the night,” McNamara said. “These people can be up from anywhere from a few minutes handling this business.”

An example of callback pay could be a public works employee who gets called to fix an early morning utility issue. McNamara says the county recently cut the minimum pay for callbacks, with the justification that while these emergency jobs had to be done in-person in the past, many can now be done with computers and or over the phone.

“But it’s no less a disruption of their lives than if they got in a car and responded out,” McNamara said, adding that callback pay cuts also have an emotional component for county employees. “It’s less an economic issue, and more to them a kind of indicator that they are not respected or appreciated.”

Besides wage disputes, negotiations failed between the union and county administration over other benefits.

"A critical area of relief that the county could not ignore is the great need to increase the cafeteria contributions for employees with dependents," according to an informational page devoted to the employee strike on the county's website. "The county also needed to act quickly in order for employees to be able to make the appropriate healthcare changes during open enrollment as a result of the increased cafeteria contributions."

Unless the two parties can come to an agreement, McNamara says SLOCEA may strike in the first or second week of December. But not all employees.

“There are certain positions that, legally, cannot strike, because they are tied to a health and safety position,” Wade Horton said.

What the two sides disagree on now is what exactly those positions are, since this would be the first-ever county labor strike.  

Just before Thanksgiving, the county announced it asked California's state labor agency to define those health and safety positions. If that doesn’t work, Horton said the state’s public employment relations board (PERB) may file a lawsuit against SLOCEA in San Luis Obispo County Superior Court next week.