Hundreds of striking SLO County workers demand ‘a fair wage to just live here’

San Luis Obispo County employees speak to the board as strike starts

Three striking San Luis Obispo County workers address the San Luis Obispo County Board of Supervisors during public comment on Tuesday, December, 11, 2018.
Up Next
Three striking San Luis Obispo County workers address the San Luis Obispo County Board of Supervisors during public comment on Tuesday, December, 11, 2018.

Hundreds of San Luis Obispo County employees walked off the job and joined picket lines Tuesday, uniting in a call for better pay.

Social workers, librarians and victim advocates took over the public comment period at the county Board of Supervisors meeting to testify, one after another, about their need for a fair and living wage, and to blame supervisors for a failure in leadership. They filled the chambers, holding signs reading, “It’s not about greed, it’s about need,” and “Work here, but can’t afford to live here.”

About 350 workers formed a picket line Tuesday in front of the County Government Center and the courthouse on Monterey Street in downtown San Luis Obispo.

The San Luis Obispo County Employees’ Association is county government’s largest union with 1,700 members. The group, on average, makes nearly 18 percent less than workers doing the same job in similar counties, including Kern, Monterey and Santa Barbara counties, according to a third-party fact-finding report.

At Tuesday’s meeting, many SLOCEA members said they’ve worked with the county for years but are barely able to pay their bills.

Members of the largest union of county workers (San Luis Obispo County Employees’ Association) picket at the County Board of Supervisors meeting. David Middlecamp 12-11-2018 David Middlecamp dmiddlecamp@thetribunenews.com

Some said their children are on Medi-Cal because they can’t afford the county’s insurance. Some said they take home half their salary after insurance, pension contributions and taxes. Others said employees are leaving because they can’t afford to live in the communities they serve.

‘I believe the American Dream is very much alive and, us workers, we want to be able to afford to live where we work. I don’t think it’s unfair for us to ask for a decent wage increase that can support and sustain us where we live now,” said Heather Griffin, a 33-year-old wife, mother and employment resource specialist in Social Services.

There’s a simple answer to the recruitment and retention problem in San Luis Obispo County, Griffin said: “Just pay us workers what we deserve to be paid and we’ll stay. We love our jobs.”

Kim Romero is a soft-spoken women who said she’s worked for the county for 29 years and still lives paycheck to paycheck.

“I love my job. I love the county. I don’t want to be any place else but here, obviously. I just am asking for a fair wage to just live here,” Romero told the supervisors. “Not do all the extra stuff, just live here: go to the grocery store and pay all my bills.

“Have some compassion for us and please look within the budget and give us what we deserve, what we had at one point,” Romero said, a reference to the fact that workers gave up a negotiated raise to help the county get through the recession many years ago.

Some told supervisors that their last wage offer was insulting — one woman asked, “how do you sleep at night?” Others said it was wrong that county employees have to rely on low-income programs because the pay is so bad.

“Me and my two children still qualify for Medi-Cal and Section 8. If my wages were fair living wages, there is absolutely no reason I should qualify for those programs. I should be able to afford those things with my pay that you guys give me. It is absolutely not enough,” said Cassandra DeSpain, an employment resource specialist.

Mark McCullough, also an employment resource specialist, is an active member of the community. He’s a den leader with Boy Scouts, a youth leader with his church, a voter and a homeowner. Yet he and his family recently sat down and looked at a map to consider where they should move because it’s simply getting too hard. Others echoed the warning.

“Good people are leaving the county. Good workers are leaving. Take this into consideration,” said Robert Ortega, a drug and alcohol counselor.

Workers from nearly every county department are on strike this week, forcing 13 of the county library branches to close and limiting services in some other offices.

The county offered the 1,700 members of the San Luis Obispo County Employees’ Association a 0.5 percent wage increase and additional money for medical benefits this fiscal year and another 2 percent raise next fiscal year.

Members of the union, for the first time in the county’s history, rejected that last and final offer. After failed negotiations, they announced in November that they would strike.

Union members are demanding:

  • An additional wage increase of 2.5 percent for certain groups of employees effective July 1, 2018.

  • Increased health benefit contribution to $850.

  • Return of the full two-hour minimum benefit to employees working on-call, regardless of whether the employee is required to physically respond to the work site.

“We’re not here to get rich. There are other counties where we could go and get more money. If we did it for the money, we’d be hopping,” Esmeralda Garcia said at Tuesday’s meeting. “But that’s not it. We want to live in the community where we work. We want to help the community where we live. We want to help our neighbors.”

As she spoke, people behind her waved their hands in the air in support.

Garcia then directly pleaded to the board: “And what I’m asking of you is, don’t just look and smile and nod. Please do something about it. We often hear that you appreciate what we do. Show it, don’t tell it.”

Supervisors Debbie Arnold, Bruce Gibson, Adam Hill and John Peschong appeared to listen intently to the testimony of their employees (Lynn Compton has been absent in recent months due to an ongoing family medical issue). But no promises were made.

Gibson said, “There is a formal process to get this resolved.”

Arnold said, “everyone will be working hard to find a resolution.”

The strike is expected to continue at least through Thursday.

Related stories from San Luis Obispo Tribune

Monica Vaughan reports on health, Cal Poly, San Luis Obispo County, oil and wildlife at The Tribune. She previously covered crime and justice in the Sacramento Valley, is a graduate of the University of Oregon journalism school and is a sixth-generation Californian. Have an idea for a story? Email: mvaughan@thetribunenews.com