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SLO County pays its workers far less than similar counties — that’s why they’re striking

San Luis Obispo County Board of Supervisors have the final say on county wages. They are, from left, Adam Hill, Lynn Compton, John Peschong, Debbie Arnold, Bruce Gibson.
San Luis Obispo County Board of Supervisors have the final say on county wages. They are, from left, Adam Hill, Lynn Compton, John Peschong, Debbie Arnold, Bruce Gibson. dmiddlecamp@thetribunenews.com

More than 1,000 San Luis Obispo County workers are poised to strike this week, and a third-party analysis of their pay and benefits shows why.

Data show wages for workers in the San Luis Obispo County Employees’ Association simply aren’t keeping up with the market rate, a situation that union leaders say is a problem for recruitment and retention of a quality workforce that will only get worse as county pay falls behind its peers while the cost of local housing rises.

“We’re severely below market,” SLOCEA union manager Patrick McNamara said.

“It began back in the recession. County employees gave up already negotiated wages and deferred other benefits and went without raises for a number of years, and just fell way behind. That, coupled with the fact the county hasn’t done a lot to regain that ground, is how we got to this situation now,” McNamara said in a phone interview with The Tribune on the eve of the strike, which is scheduled to begin Tuesday and last three or four days.

Members of the union are employed in nearly every department in the county government, in the Library, Probation, Sheriff-Coroner, Veteran Services, Social Services, Behavioral Health, Child Support Services, Animal Services, Public Works and more.

As a result of the strike, all 15 library branches are scheduled to be shut down and other public services will be affected. Residents will likely see employees on the picket line at locations throughout the county.

When county administrators and union representatives met in negotiations in November 2017, third-party fact finders determined that San Luis Obispo County paid about 1,500 county workers an average of 17.9 percent less than people in similar jobs in other counties like Kern, Monterey, Placer and Santa Barbara.

The situation didn’t look quite as dire when the group of comparable agencies was expanded to include the private sector and other government agencies, like school districts, Cal Poly and the state. Comparing to those groups, SLOCEA workers made an average of 9.7 percent less than their peers doing similar work.

Either way, employees in the bargaining unit “are paid (significantly) less in salary than employees performing similar services for other employers,” a fact-finding report reads.

Negotiations fell apart since that fact-finding report was released.

A majority of workers declined the county’s best and final offer for the first time in the history of the decades-old union. Employees in nearly every department of the county are working without a contract.

The county did impose a 0.5 percent raise across the board, and several categories of workers — those who were found to be making more than 10 percent less than the market rate — received a larger raise, county reports say.

That, however is not enough to make up the gap, and “keeping wages competitive is not a priority for them,” McNamara said.

McNamara said he expects that the next time workers compare salaries, SLO County will be even farther behind as the trend shows other agencies are increasing wages even more, “moving out ahead of us more rapidly.”

Ultimately, “It’s going to lead to a crisis of recruiting and retaining employees, if it hasn’t already. We can’t avoid the other issue, that it’s demoralizing for employees that do work here,” McNamara said.

SLOCEA workers are demanding a 3 percent raise for the current fiscal year to keep up with the increased cost of living here.

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