The largest union of Sonoma County government employees ended its three-day strike Thursday, concluding a raucous and vibrant labor protest centered in Santa Rosa that union representatives hoped would advance their interests in contract talks under way with the county.
Officials with Service Employees International Union Local 1021 said they hoped to help convince the Board of Supervisors and County Administrator Veronica Ferguson to enact pay increases and contribute more to their health coverage.
“We’re not trying to be greedy — the county is recovering financially, and we’re struggling,” said Omar Medina, a county eligibility worker who is also on the union’s bargaining team. “We gave up so much during times of austerity.”
The union represents 2,200 rank-and-file county employees and accounts for about half the county’s 4,100-member workforce.
County officials said 1,200 SEIU-affiliated employees did not show up to work on Thursday while union representatives estimated that a total of 2,000 members and their supporters wearing purple marched and carried picket signs throughout the county, the peak turnout for the three-day protest.
The union is pressing for an 8 percent pay increase over two years, in addition to greater county contributions to cover the cost of employee health care. County officials said they’ve offered employees a 4 percent increase in total compensation — including pay and benefits — over 21 months.
The county’s offer didn’t change on Wednesday, when union negotiators met amid the strike with the county’s bargaining team for the 22nd time in four months in an attempt to hammer out a deal. The county offered a new one-time payment of $475 per employee to entice union members to ratify a new contract, according to union representatives, who said they rejected the offer.
The two sides are set to resume negotiations Friday. Members of the union’s bargaining team said they have not ruled out another strike if there isn’t movement from the county. County officials said they are still evaluating their next steps.
“We are committed to the process and continue to put forth proposals related to the county and SEIU’s shared interests related to health care, employee salaries and other elements of total compensation at each bargaining session,” said county spokeswoman Rebecca Wachsberg.
The strike and related staffing shortages reduced public services at a number of county departments. The Human Services Department, which handles a broad range of social aid programs, experienced the greatest impact. About 512 of the department’s 736 SEIU-affiliated employees did not show up for work Thursday and the agency was forced to turn away more than half of people seeking enrollment in public assistance, such as food stamps and Medi-Cal, according to county officials. An estimated 1,110 people would have called to enroll in public benefits through a phone assistance center during the strike, officials said.
“It’s a big number — we had to close down all of our phone lines for all three days,” said Karen Fies, the department’s assistant director. “We are very concerned about those impacts. Our goal is to provide excellent customer service and we’ve not been able to provide all of our regular services.”
Fies said managers and other staff filled in on frontline positions and the department triaged emergency cases dealing with child and elder abuse.
County health officials said they also had to cut services and delay appointments in mental health and in-home nursing programs. Out of the department’s 198 SEIU-affiliated employees, 115 did not show up to work Thursday.