Sonoma County’s largest group of unionworkers’ gross pay equals or beats median income
Sonoma County government workers who staged a three-day strike the week before Thanksgiving for better pay and benefits currently make as much or more, on average, than a typical county resident.
While individual pay varies widely for members of the county’s largest union, which includes 2,400 employees from janitors to nurses, the group’s median base pay has a narrow range, starting at $49,900 and rising to $60,800, county payroll records show. The range reflects the pay increases county employees receive as they advance through nine wage “steps” within each job classification.
At the same time, the median pay for all, full-time employed county residents over the age of 16 is $50,900, U.S. Census figures show.
Labor advocates say that comparison presents a skewed view of county-employee compensation that does not account for the reductions they see in take-home pay to cover contributions toward their pensions and health care coverage.
But government fiscal watchdogs say the comparison should serve as a guide for the Board of Supervisors and county administrators as they engage in contract talks with Service Employees International Union Local 1021 and the other labor groups representing county employees.
The county must keep a tight rein on salaries to be able to afford its payroll costs and invest in needed public services.
“I think it’s a very decent wage considering what they’re getting later on,” said Dan Drummond, executive director of the Sonoma County Taxpayers Association. “The wages are just one thing. The pension is another. You need to factor in the entire package.”
County workers represented by SEIU Local 1021 have asked for two 4 percent pay increases over the next two years, a boost they say is needed to recoup wage gains that were erased by the recession- and post-recession years when employee pay was cut and frozen. Employees’ contribution to their pensions alone already amounts to about 12 percent of pay - among the highest rates in the state - while rising employee health care costs are eating up a greater chunk of take-home pay, labor advocates say.
Char Mendoza, an account clerk on the SEIU 1021 bargaining team, said average take-home pay for a majority of the union members is closer to $30,000 when factoring in those expenses.
Mendoza said many employees are barely getting by and some are on welfare.
“I have to take in roommates to make my rent,” said Mendoza, who works in Animal Services. “The cost of living has gone up. Our take-home pay hasn’t. It’s remained stagnant since before 2007.”
Following the strike, the union and management negotiators were at the bargaining table until after midnight on Friday headed into the holiday week, trying to reach agreement. No negotiations were scheduled for Thanksgiving week. They resume Monday.
Mendoza wouldn’t discuss specifics but said the county is sticking to its offer to pay a flat fee toward healthcare while union leaders are holding out for a deal that would have the county pick up a greater share of employee costs based on a percentage rate. Top union leaders didn’t comment, referring questions to Mendoza.
Veronica Ferguson, county administrator, said the proposal would increase take-home pay for the lowest paid employees opting for the family plan by $900 a month.
The county is also asking employees to pay more into their pensions and accept a 2 percent pay increase July 1. The boost would come on top of 2 percent employees received this summer.
Overall, the county has offered a 4 percent increase on total compensation, including pay and benefits, over 21 months.
“I feel we’re much closer than we were before,” Ferguson said. “I’m optimistic the bargaining team can sit down in the next session and get to an agreement.”
Mendoza said the two sides are “not really close” but are continuing to talk productively. The strike demonstrated the union’s resolve to get a better deal, she said.
“We’re not stopping until we have something fair,” she said.
SEIU employees make up more than half of the county’s 4,100-member workforce and tend to be among the lowest paid.
They are employed in a range of occupations with a wide spectrum of wages. At the low end are 64 temporary park aides, who are paid a starting wage of $13.69 an hour, or $28,573 a year. The highest paid employees in the group are nurse practitioners and network analysts making close to $50 a hour, or more than $100,000 a year. In between are hundreds of clerical workers, public health aides, office assistants and laborers, making $15 to $25 an hour. Janitors make up to $19.77 an hour.
Rick Pollio, a road maintenance worker in the Healdsburg yard, said after deductions he takes home about $3,000 a month. It’s not enough to pay his bills and health care coverage for his three children, ages 9 to 16. Health care alone under the county plan would cost him $1,400 a month. So, he has turned to public assistance, he said.
“It’s kind of funny that I work for the government yet qualify for Medi-Cal,” Pollio said.
Pollio bristles at the public perception of county workers as overpaid. He said pay in his job class went from $31,000 to $41,000 since 2002 but his contribution to pension and healthcare increased by $11,000, for a net monthly loss of $1,000.
Over the same time period, pay for members of the Board of Supervisors increased from about $85,000 to $141,000 a year. The supervisors’ pay is tied to salaries received by judges, an arrangement they made to prevent controversy over board members giving themselves raises but which has worked to their benefit over the years.
“I want people to know we’re not killing it,” Pollio said of rank-and-file workers. “We definitely are not rolling in dough.”
News researcher Janet Balicki contributed to this report. You can reach Staff Writer Paul Payne at 568-5312 or firstname.lastname@example.org. On Twitter @ppayne.