Riverside County supervisors Tuesday may decide whether to unilaterally impose terms of a collective bargaining agreement opposed by a 7,000-member union representing nurses, clerks, social workers, custodians, accountants and others who have been operating without a contract for more than a year.
The county last August declared an impasse in negotiations with Service Employees International Union, Local 721, after 40 bargaining sessions failed to net a deal on which the county and SEIU representatives could agree.
Purple-shirted SEIU members are expected to pack the Board of Supervisors’ chamber on Tuesday morning for a public hearing on the issue. Last September, the union staged a two-day walkout involving hundreds of workers, though it was unclear whether all of the participants were from Riverside County.
A unilateral imposition of the memorandum of understanding would not be a bar to further negotiations. The board declared an impasse with the Riverside Sheriffs’ Association last October and imposed a one-year contract after the 2,500-strong bargaining unit refused to accept the county’s terms.
Like the RSA, pay and benefits are the principal points dogging talks between the county and SEIU. The union’s leadership does not accept the county’s contention that a structural budget deficit and limited discretionary revenue are barriers to funding merit pay increases, across-the-board pay hikes and enhanced insurance benefits for workers, according to documents posted to the board’s agenda.
The union has blasted the county for securing a $41 million contract with Netherlands-based professional services firm KPMG, which was hired to find ways of improving efficiencies and lowering costs throughout county government.
“The allocation to the KPMG contract is yet another example of wasteful spending and a lack of transparency and accountability to the public,” according to an SEIU statement that says in the two years since the KPMG contract was cinched, “the county has not reported any cost savings.” SEIU officials contend the money that went for the KPMG audit and operational planning could have been dedicated to resizing salaries and benefits.
The union further disagreed with some of the metrics that county Executive Office officials have employed to determine the totality of the reserve pool, as well as the comparable compensation structures in place elsewhere in the state.
According to the union, the county should discontinue the practice of holding reserves at 25 percent of discretionary revenue and lower them instead to 17 percent, freeing up millions. The reserve pool is projected to end the current fiscal year at roughly $200 million. Discretionary revenue is just under $800 million. The total size of the county budget is $5.45 billion, but the bulk is comprised of special funds, along with pass-through state and federal sums designated for specific purposes, uncontrolled by the board.
SEIU officials said the county should factor in government compensation formulas in Sacramento and Santa Clara counties, rather than rely strictly upon neighboring Southern California counties, to identity appropriate pay and benefits levels.
According to the county’s fact-finders at the Zappia Law Firm, by the time Local 721’s last contract ended in November 2016, members had received, on average, “a staggering 43 percent to 49 percent increases in compensation” over four years.
The firm also found that the average SEIU member’s “compensation, benefits and perks” amount to over $106,000 per year in outlays, and that many in the senior salary grades are receiving pay and benefits that are “18.32 percent higher than (public employees) in the five surrounding counties of Los Angeles, Orange, San Bernardino, San Diego and Ventura.”
According to county officials, added expenses from the phased opening of the John J. Benoit Detention Center in Indio, outlays for the future office complex at the Riverside University Medical Center in Moreno Valley, escalating pension obligations and other costs leave little room for automatic pay and benefits hikes demanded by SEIU.
Moreover, county Chief Financial Officer Don Kent said the county is still laboring to overcome a $200 million structural deficit that began during the Great Recession of 2008-09.
Tony Butka, appointed by the California Public Employee Relations Board to mediate negotiations, recommended that the county retroactively grant 2 percent across-the-board wage increases from Jan. 1 to June 30, and then another automatic 2 percent hike in the next fiscal year, along with a 1 percent bonus for county nurses, whom he said are difficult to recruit and have been using the county as a jumping-off point to career advancement elsewhere.
The county’s last, best offer includes a one-time merit pay increase for all SEIU members and reduction in flexible benefit cashouts and several medical insurance subsidies.
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