Editorials

These government workers are fed up — and in unaffordable SLO County, that’s understandable

The third day of the San Luis Obispo County strike will be the last of this action, pending new negotiations.

SLOCEA general manager Pat McNamara said the labor action will end Thursday and hopes new negotiations with San Luis Obispo County can start sooner rather than later.
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SLOCEA general manager Pat McNamara said the labor action will end Thursday and hopes new negotiations with San Luis Obispo County can start sooner rather than later.

For the first time ever, hundreds of San Luis Obispo County employees went out on strike this week. It was limited in duration — workers were back on the job on Friday — but they made it clear they’re willing to walk out again.

It shouldn’t have to come to that. Employees are making reasonable demands, and the county should be willing to budge off its final offer.

The 1,700-member San Luis Obispo County Employees’ Association (SLOCEA) requested a 3 percent raise; the county offered 0.5 percent, plus an increase in health benefits that’s tied to the number of dependents an employee enrolls in a county health plan.

For an employee with dependents, that works out to a 1.9 percent increase in total compensation.

SLOCEA members turned down that offer — whereupon the county imposed it anyway.

It’s true that the county is not in great financial shape; it’s imposed a hiring “chill,” and it expects revenue to be flat for the next few years.

It’s also true that, taken together, the increase in salary and benefits is significant — it will cost the county an additional $2.8 million per year.

Under the circumstances, the county should be extra prudent with taxpayer dollars, but at the same time, it has an obligation to provide employees with a liveable wage.

That’s the right thing to do, and it’s also what voters want. Years ago, they passed a prevailing wage ordinance aimed at making county salaries competitive with other counties, as well as private industry.

Even so, SLOCEA wages aren’t keeping pace. According to county calculations, compensation for SLOCEA members is, on average, 9 percent lower than worker compensation in comparable counties, other public agencies and the private sector.

Some county employees have told us they’ve taken second jobs or applied for Medi-Cal benefits because they can’t afford to enroll their children in the county’s medical plan.

We don’t know how widespread this is — neither the county nor SLOCEA was able to tell us how many employees have received public benefits — but we heard about enough cases to find this highly disturbing.

At a minimum, full-time employees should not be forced to apply for public assistance or to take second jobs in order to keep their families afloat.

They should also be able to pay the rent — or the mortgage if they’re luck enough to own a home — but given the high cost of housing here, that’s becoming increasing difficult.

As many county employees pointed out during the strike, they work here, but they can’t afford to live here.

In that, they aren’t alone; it’s the norm for thousands of local workers in nearly all employment sectors — private, public and nonprofit;. Last week’s strike was just one manifestation of how fed up many locals are with below-average wages and way-above-average housing costs.

Here’s how ridiculous it is: According to a report released in August, county homebuyers would need an income of $131,100 to afford the $3,280 monthly payment on a median-priced house of $618,500; only 22 percent of residents can afford that.

Rents aren’t much better; early in the year, The Tribune reported that SLO County rents were going up faster than anywhere else in the state.

The Board of Supervisors is finally trying to do something about housing. To its credit, it recently adopted a comprehensive program aimed at encouraging construction of lower-cost homes, though it has yet to figure out how to pay for it.

In the meantime, rank-and-file county employees need a living wage that factors in the high cost of housing in SLO County.

We don’t know if 3 percent is the right figure, or if there’s a compromise somewhere in between SLOCEA’s ask and the county’s offer. That’s up to the negotiators to figure out.

We urge both sides to return to the bargaining table as soon as possible, with a willingness to compromise.

It would be great if the first strike by SLO County workers could be the last.

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