SANTA CRUZ—Service Employees International Union Local 521, the union representing the majority of Santa Cruz County workers, has called for a strike after a majority of employees voted in favor of the action.
While saying that they are still willing to negotiate, union officials say that the strike would begin on Jan. 25 at 8am.
The union represents some 1,600 workers who work in numerous sectors of the County, including public health nurses, social workers, cooks, custodians and public works employees.
Chapter President Veronica Velasquez, who works as a senior social worker, said that employees have been without a contract for seven months as they negotiated with the County.
Roughly 87% of the workers who voted rejected the County’s last offer, and 93% approved a strike, Velasquez said.
“We haven’t been able to reach a resolution,” she said. “The County has not been negotiating in good faith and continues to refuse to offer a fair and just contract.”
Velasquez says that workers are facing staffing shortages that leave them overworked and put their departments at risk.
“At this point, Santa Cruz County workers are faced with no other choice but to strike to safeguard public services, as the County fails to invest in frontline services to address increasing community needs during the pandemic,” she said.
Santa Cruz County spokesman Jason Hoppin said that the County has offered an 8% raise over three years, including a 5.5% raise this year.
In addition, the County has agreed to give workers the Juneteenth holiday, a concession they had been demanding. The offer also allows workers to work remotely.
Hoppin says that demands by SEIU to use the $53 million it received from the federal American Rescue Plan Act of 2021 are not feasible, as some of that money went to restore a 7.5% furlough the union agreed to in 2020. The rest has been earmarked for farmworker outreach and vaccine education, workforce development for minorities and women and public health measures such as PPE distribution and health clinic staffing.
“It is disappointing that after six months of negotiations, the union has chosen to forgo state mediation and opted to strike,” Hoppin said. “While we hope for a quick resolution we are prepared for the long haul. Unfortunately, it is those members of our community who depend on County services and staff—from public health workers to benefits representatives to road repair crews—who will bear the brunt of this decision.”
Alma Ruiz, a child support specialist who sits on the union’s bargaining team, says that the County’s last offer does nothing to help workers survive in Santa Cruz County, leaving some to decide between paying rent and buying food.
Ruiz says that the County’s offer will not help retain and attract workers to help fill hundreds of vacant positions, which is putting additional burdens on what they describe as an overworked staff that has worked diligently through the pandemic.
Hoppin said that many of the unfilled vacancies cited by the workers are unfunded positions, which he says exist in every budget. Additionally, jurisdictions must follow certain rules to fill civil service positions, a process he says can take six months.
Hoppin also says that some vacancies are due to natural turnover expected of any organization.
Velasquez agreed that striking during the pandemic—particularly during the Omicron surge—could put county residents at risk.
While she said that “everything is negotiable” and that workers will show up if legally required to do so, she said there will be no skeleton crews filling essential positions.
This includes services such as welfare, food stamps and Medi-Cal. There will also be fewer social workers to respond to calls for children in danger, and no public health nurses.
“We don’t want to strike, but this is exactly what the County management and the Board of Supervisors have pushed us to do. The long-term trickle effect of underfunding the labor force really could be ultimately worse than a short-lived strike,” she added.
No union official named any specifics about what they hope to see if the County makes a new offer.