Employees of the Contra Costa County Employment and Human Resources Department (EHSD), which administers various social service programs from Richmond to Martinez, went on strike last week, after six months of failed bargaining with Contra Costa County Executives and the Board of Supervisors.
After more than 1,000 workers participated in the three-day strike, with Mayor Wade Harper of Antioch joining in for an hour on Monday, organizers said the strike will continue through this weekend.
The strike, by the SEIU Local 1021’s Public Service members, was authorized by the Contra Costa AFL-CIO Labor Council. Striking workers contend that they deserve better retention, recruitment and safety policies, especially given pay rates that trail behind those of other counties and agencies.
EHSD is responsible for welfare and nutrition services, child and elder abuse prevention, and such assistance programs as CalWORKs and CalFresh. Employees’ duties often involve working in dangerous environments to provide needed services to the community. But Contra Costa County Social Service Program Assistant Champagne Brown said the safety of both employees and clients is increasingly at risk.
“A couple of months ago there were reports of someone in our parking lot with a weapon. There was supposed to be security and there wasn’t,” said Brown. “That person could have easily come in our building.”
Brown said that Contra Costa County executives are unresponsive because they’re not directly affected by violence in the community.
“Safety hasn’t affected them like it affects us,” she said. “I’m sure if a problem comes on their doorstep they will do something about it.”
On top of weak safety measures, many employees said that they are also struggling with long work hours due to short staffing. Local 1021 staff member Nguyen Weeks said workers now routinely go into the community two at a time for personal safety, but that this takes time away from their own cases and has resulted in backlogs of work.
“We are unable to provide the county with the work services that they need,” said Laura Carnagey, an Emergency Work Response social worker of Antioch. “It’s an overwhelming job when you mix the kind of work that we do with being short-staffed.”
Social workers teaming up isn’t the only reason that units are short-staffed. Carnagey said she was one of seventeen workers in her unit when she began her job two years ago. Now, she said, she is the third most senior employee in her department.
“It’s kind of unbearable,” she said.
Dan Jameyson, Local 121-chapter president for Contra Costa County, said worker contracts have been inadequate since the recession, which has caused employee retention to decline in recent years.
In a press release, the Contra Costa County Administrator’s Office said the county held 25 bargaining sessions with Local 1021 representatives over six months, at which the county offered to put $9 million toward salary increases and more than $11 million towards health care coverage. The release also said that the county put forward several proposals to address safety concerns.
“The County is disappointed that the Union would take this action. We remain hopeful that an agreement…can be reached in the near future,” said David Twa, the Contra Costa County Administrator. “In the meantime, we want to assure the public that County services will continue.”
Betsy Burkhart, Contra Costa County Director of Communications and Media, said that the county’s budgetary problems are one barrier to agreement.
“From the county’s perspective, we recognize that workers took a burden during the recession,” said Burkhart. “We are trying to restore some of the salaries, but there is a limited budget.”
“There will be an effort to try to restore salaries in contract negotiations,” she said, “but it’s not a blank check.”