Contra Costa County labor unions push for better contract

Public defenders and district attorneys are usually on opposing sides in the courtroom, but staff members from both departments have marched in lockstep at recent rallies, urging Contra Costa County to recruit and retain more people to lighten their workloads.

Nine labor unions that represent more than 6,000 workers, including prosecutors, public defenders, engineers, IT staff and public service workers, among others, have joined forces to argue for better compensation in their next three-year contract — a move that might keep employees from departing for greener pastures.

With about a week remaining on the unions’ current deal, organizers say they are far from contemplating a strike, but they are prepared to begin moving in that direction if the two sides don’t make progress soon.

There were 1,964 vacancies among roughly 10,000 full-time positions in the county last year, a rate of about 20%, compared to 12% in Santa Clara County, with nearly a 4% overall increase in unfilled positions from the 2017-18 fiscal year , according to data provided by the unions.

The biggest impact was to the health services department, which saw a 14% increase in vacancies from the year before as the COVID-19 pandemic stretched public health workers thin over long hours of physical and emotional stress.

The union coalition represents many of these workers — including medical assistants, mental health specialists and lab technicians — who treated patients and battled the spread of COVID at the Contra Costa Regional Medical Center in Martinez and numerous other health clinics in the county.

“The jobs became so much harder during the pandemic,” said Sean Stalbaum, lead organizer for the nine-union coalition Staff Up Contra Costa. “At a certain point, employees started looking around and said, ‘I just can’t do this any more; this is too much.’ ”

The core problem, workers say, is that the county has not reinvested revenue into better health care benefits and cost-of-living adjustments for workers, prompting younger professionals to leave for more attractive public sector jobs in Alameda and Santa Clara counties or the local cities there.

Supervisor Karen Mitchoff said in an interview that health care has been a significant “sticking point” in the negotiations.

“We fought this battle three years ago and got an agreement on these issues,” said Mitchoff, who is retiring this year and previously worked more than 20 years as a county employee. “Granted we’d all like to get (workers) much more, but we also have to be fiscally prudent.”

One county worker with more than 20 years under his belt said Contra Costa has effectively become a “training ground” for employees who eventually seek better opportunities elsewhere, killing morale for the veterans who then take on multiple roles to make up the difference.

“I’ve seen people get hired and leave just because of the benefits and salary issues,” said Gabriel Lemus, a principal planner in the county’s conservation department and an IFPTE Local 21 representative.

“They come to me directly and say they’d like to stay, but it’s too hard when they could earn better benefits and maybe have less of a workload at other employers,” Lemus said.

The labor groups have held large rallies outside the county Board of Supervisors chamber in Martinez, timing the most animated moments for when the supervisors are meeting in closed session to discuss the unions’ next contract.

The county and its labor groups regularly continue to bargain after contracts expire, and union workers will be paid what they were making until a deal is reached. Retroactive pay agreements are rare, so the unions are under pressure to reach a deal as quickly as possible.

If negotiations come to a complete standstill, the two sides can declare an impasse and request a California labor relations mediator to forge a compromise, the first of several steps before the union members can vote to authorize a strike.

Labor leaders are cautiously optimistic that they can reach a deal well before that becomes an option, though one union representative said he didn’t expect an agreement to be reached before mid-July.

“We’re still quite a ways away,” said Teamsters 856 organizer Corey Hallman, noting that the two sides hadn’t made much progress during a bargaining session Friday.

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