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About 1,500 Sonoma County government employees joined picket lines Tuesday for the first day of a planned three-day strike by the county’s largest group of unionized workers.

The demonstrations, clustered mainly outside county offices in Santa Rosa, escalated a standoff between local government officials and rank-and-file employees about the rising cost of health care and other living expenses, including housing, that workers say are outstripping their paychecks.

Representatives for the Service Employees International Union Local 1021, which represents more than half of the county’s 4,100 employees, claim that the county has not come to the bargaining table with a good-faith offer that addresses those issues.

“The county is taking workers for granted, and unfortunately that’s a lesson they have to learn,” said Lisa Maldonado, field director for the union. “Working people are tired of an economy that doesn’t work for them, and we’re tired of it — Sonoma County is becoming a playground for the rich.”

The union is pressing for an 8 percent pay increase over the next two years, and greater contributions to employee health care plans. The county’s current offer is a 4 percent increase in total compensation — including pay and benefits — over 21 months.

Board of Supervisors Chairwoman Susan Gorin called the employees’ concerns “valid” and said she and her colleagues tried repeatedly to avert the strike. But ultimately, Gorin said, county leaders must think about compensation for all employees and the county’s need to invest in a number of public initiatives and services.

“We’ve been trying to figure out the financing necessary to negotiate a fair compensation package, and to look very carefully at our employees’ concerns about health care costs,” Gorin said. “It really comes down to reaching the compromises necessary with the funding we have available.”

The labor action marks a rare one for Sonoma County government. The last time its employees went out on strike was in the 1980s, according to county officials.

The two sides have met 21 times over the past four months in an attempt to hammer out a deal. The contract talks with SEIU are pivotal because they are likely to influence terms offered and reached in negotiations with the county’s 10 other bargaining groups.

On Tuesday, workers clad in purple shirts gathered outside about a dozen work sites. They carried signs that read “Unfair labor practice,” and “We’re standing up for our children.” Many marched on the county’s main administration building in Santa Rosa, where hundreds gathered outside during the Board of Supervisors regular Tuesday meeting.

“Stand up, fight back. County workers under attack,” the crowd yelled.

“We’re out here because we have to stand up for ourselves,” said Omar Medina, a county eligibility worker who also is an activist with the North Bay Organizing Project. “This is our last resort. The county really hasn’t moved from their original position since we started negotiating months ago, so we think withholding labor is what we have to do.”

Union officials said they plan to meet with county negotiators Wednesday, but they don’t expect the strike to end before Friday, when Maldonado said employees are expected to return to work. The action was originally slated as a one-day strike.

Officials said all county offices will remain open during the strike, but the public should expect significant delays in service because many rank-and-file employees are striking. At the Permit and Resource Management Department, for example, 80 of its 110 workers are SEIU members, according to department officials.

Other health and administrative offices were experiencing delays in service, according to the county.

Nancy Kenneally, a real estate broker in Santa Rosa, said she is closing escrow on two properties this week and is concerned that bare staffing at the Clerk-Recorder’s Office will delay the home purchases.

“They usually have three recorders, and today they just had one,” Kenneally said Tuesday. “We plan these things out, so if something doesn’t record, the delay could possibly stop somebody from moving into their new home. Buying and selling homes is a big time business so we’re stressed out.”

Maldonado said Tuesday’s strike, authorized by members in a vote two weeks ago, reflects the strain that SEIU members say they are under. Many are clerical and frontline service staff, who tend to be among the county’s lowest-paid workers.

Like most county employees, they took a 2.25 percent cut in overall compensation, including benefits, under their last contract, which expired Oct. 31. That concession came in exchange for a 3 percent pay raise — their first since 2008 — over the final 16 months of the labor deal.

But SEIU members say their compensation hasn’t kept pace with the rising cost of medical coverage and housing, especially.

“It’s so expensive,” said Sally Dent, a nurse who works in the Department of Health Services. “Ever since 2008 and 2009, our benefits have just been getting whittled away. We gave up so much, and we’re not getting anything back.”

Leslie Weaver, an eligibility worker who helps enroll people in public benefits, said health care premiums aren’t an issue for her because she’s on her husband’s insurance. But she said she’s seen many people leave county employment because of that expense.

“I’m a team leader, so I train people, and so many of my people are leaving to Solano and Napa and Marin counties because they’re more competitive,” Weaver said.

Union representatives said their bargaining team is pushing for a new deal on health care benefits that would eliminate the county’s $500 monthly payment per employee, a controversial move made in 2009 to stem rising taxpayer costs for employee medical coverage.

Union officials say that arrangement has led to significantly sharper costs for family coverage, and negotiators are pushing the county to consider paying up to 90 percent of the premium, with employees picking up the remainder.

The county, in turn, has offered to increase its contribution on a tiered basis, with couples and families qualifying for more — up to $1,477 per month.

Supervisor Shirlee Zane said she understands that high health insurance premiums are creating a steep financial burden for some.

“We did ask our employees to take lots of concessions during the recession,” Zane said. “We still have to be fiscally restrained during this budget, but I hear that health benefits are not sufficient. It’s a crisis, and we’re working on it.”

The protest is the first clear public action for the union under Maldonado’s leadership. An aggressive advocate for organized labor, she left her executive director role at the North Bay Labor Council in August to assume the helm of SEIU Local 1021 in the North Bay. Her fight, she said, remains the same.

“If I’m more militant, it’s because I’ve seen through my time at the North Bay Labor Council how county workers are struggling — nurses, teachers, construction workers, day laborers, bus drivers,” Maldonado said. “Our middle class is disappearing.”

You can reach Staff Writer Angela Hart at 526-8503 or angela.hart@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @ahartreports.

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