Sonoma County court workers go on strike

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Sonoma County Superior Court clerks, legal assistants and court reporters went on strike Wednesday after contract negotiations broke down over pay and working conditions.

About 100 members of SEIU Local No. 1021 rallied in front of the Hall of Justice carrying picket signs and chanting slogans including, “Enough, enough. It’s time to get respect.”

“These are the line workers who make it all happen,” said union representative and retired clerk Irene Rosario.

Court employees have been negotiating a contract since late summer. Managers are offering a 2 percent pay increase and a $500 stipend. Rosario said the two sides deadlocked over added vacation time and a “me too” clause guaranteeing raises if other employees get them.

“We hope they take the money and put it in their pockets,” said Jose Guillen, the court’s executive officer.

The strike caused delays at the courthouse as officials consolidated all cases into three courtrooms. Traffic court was canceled. The criminal and civil clerks’ offices closed early at 12:30 p.m.

Court interpreters, although not in the same bargaining unit, joined the strike. Union leaders were expected to meet in the evening to decide whether to continue the strike Thursday.

The action came amid several years of state budget cuts that have left positions unfilled, reduced window hours and strained other court services for the public.

Unhappy court employees said they have been forced to pick up the slack. Judges have turned a deaf ear to complaints, union officials said.

Raima Ballinger, the court’s presiding judge, did not return a call seeking comment.

Yasmin Mandujano, a legal process clerk in the criminal division for almost 12 years, said managers don’t seem to care about the hardship. For example, when she asked to use vacation time to cover an extended sick leave, her bosses refused.

“It let me know I meant nothing to them,” said Mandujano, a mother to two, standing near the courthouse steps with other clerks. “We give them so much. I am here more than I am at home.”

Others complained about the court’s spending on a new, $2.6 million case management system and executive raises. Salaries of the top court officials were posted last week in bathroom stalls. Many were upset that Guillen’s assistant executive officer, Cindia Martinez, got a recent 16-percent increase.

“They are overpaying the managers,” said Lisa Maldonado, SEIU’s area director.

Guillen defended the spending on the computer system, saying it will save money in the long run, allow online access to court documents and reduce paper. And he said executive pay is comparable to what court managers receive elsewhere in the state.

But he said the court’s strained finances won’t allow him to offer more to clerks. The 2 percent increase for about half the court’s 192 workers adds $326,000 to his $23 million budget, which already is forecast to have a $400,000 deficit, he said.

He said courtroom clerks and legal process clerks make up to $70,000 a year while court reporters make more.

“We wish we had more money so we could provide bigger increases but with ongoing budget constraints it’s the best we can do,” Guillen said.

You can reach Staff Writer Paul Payne at 707-568-5312 or paul.payne@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @ppayne.

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