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A year after strike, SLO County reaches deal with employee union

Tyler Pratt/KCBX News
County employees filled the San Luis Obispo County board chambers in 2018.

Just about a year after the first-ever strike in San Luis Obispo County government history, the county and thousands of its workers have reached a deal. At the beginning of December, the San Luis Obispo County Employees' Association or SLOCEA, the county’s largest union, made a deal for wages and compensation. On Tuesday, the board of supervisors approved it.

SLOCEA member Kelly Slater stood with other strikers outside the San Luis Obispo County Government Center in December of 2018.

“I have a second job because I cannot afford my one job, and not many employees can,” Slater said.

SLOCEA, comprised of roughly 2,800 county employees, was protesting an offered half percent raise members that year; members wanted more.

Speaking to KCBX News in 2018, SLO County Administrative Officer Wade Horton said the county hadn’t budgeted for more employee raises that fiscal year, but were willing to offer a half percent.

“I don't want to recommend salary increases now; that would mean years from now we’d have layoffs,” Horton said.

Horton did offer a two percent wage increase for the 2019 fiscal year. Still the union decided to strike.

“It was more of a protest,” Pat McNamara said told KCBX News by phone Tuesday.

McNamara is SLOCEA’s general manager. He said the 2018 strike was essentially a practice run, because because the employees hadn’t done one before.

“We were pleased with the outcome,” McNamara said. “The membership wanted to demonstrate to the county that they were willing to do that; use that tool if they need to.”

Except for some closed libraries, the workers didn’t fully shut down many county operations. Many health and safety workers still had to go to work. But for several days across San Luis Obispo at the end of 2018, employees could be seen on sidewalks and street corner with their signs, and in the board of supervisors chambers.

“We don’t do what we do to get paid the big bucks, because I can assure you we don’t get that,” SLOCEA member and county paralegal Ashley Wilson said at the December 11, 2018 meeting. “But we do what we do because we care about our community. We should also be able to be paid fair wages to be able to live in the community we serve.”

By the following week, everyone returned to work. And now, a year after the strike, the two sides have reached a deal. 

“It resulted in about a seven percent wage increases over three years,” McNamara said, “Some of that wage will be diverted to pension, and then some other economic increases as well.”

SLOCEA members also received increases in healthcare coverage, as well as allowances for some workers to buy new tools and uniforms. And a $500 dollar bonus for all SLOCEA workers.

McNamera said SLOCEA was also able to resolve a big issue for some members, reinstating what's termed 'callback pay,' for workers who have to return to work during odd hours. It had been reduced for employees like social workers, who sometimes have to get up in the middle of the night to do their jobs.

“When usually one person is up in a household, the entire household is up,” McNamara said. “And a lot of the folks, based on the work they do, they’ll get multiple calls during the night.”

The total cost to the county for the deal is nearly $1.3 million dollars over the next few years. That will come from reserves, which according to the county’s financial forecast, seems solid. County number experts say revenue is poised to increase, even with the possibility of a recession on the horizon for the American economy.

“I think the county has prepared for [a possible recession]," McNamara said. “The county has very healthy reserves. The reserves far exceed most counties, as least in the state of California.”

McNamara said the SLOCEA membership is happy with the deal. Now the union will begin preparing for the next round of negotiations in 2022.

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