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Sonoma County government workers rally for new contract


About 200 Sonoma County government workers staged a noon-time rally Tuesday at the county administration building to express their dissatisfaction with the status of contract negotiations.

The event was organized by the Service Employees International Union, Local 1021, the county's largest bargaining unit.

Protesters wore the union's familiar purple colors and stickers that read, "Enough. It's time to get tough." Many were bused in from around the county to attend the event, which coincided with the Board of Supervisors' first meeting after the summer break.

County Administrator Veronica Ferguson said she welcomed the protest, which she acknowledged was a "show of force."

"We want to see our employees at some point expressing their concern and interest in this process," she said.

The two sides have held 13 bargaining sessions since April 11, according to SEIU. Local 1021 represents 1,700 county workers, about half of the workforce.

Among the sticking points in negotiations is the county's demand that employees accept a three percent reduction in total compensation, including salary and benefits.

The county claims such concessions are needed to control rising payroll expenses, including pension costs, which have grown by 400 percent since 2000.

SEIU claims that in the past four years, employees have had their wages frozen, taken wage reductions with unpaid time off or been laid off while managers have continued to enjoy perks such as county-paid deferred compensation and car allowances. Both benefits help to boost managers' pensions.

Some SEIU supervisors also receive deferred compensation, but at a lower county-paid rate of 0.5 percent. The rate for most managers is 4. 5 percent; for county supervisors it is 6 percent.

The union also claims that the county could save millions by reducing its management ranks.

County data shows that managers make up 14 percent of the county's total workforce, one percent more than six years ago.

The current line staff to management ratio is 6.33 to 1, versus 6.81 to 1 six years ago.

Santa Rosa Councilwoman Susan Gorin drew cheers when she told the crowd that the management-to-staff ratio is "absolutely the conversation that needs to happen."

Gorin is running against fellow councilman John Sawyer for the 1st District supervisor's seat and has been endorsed by SEIU.

Olga Farias-Pascal, a lease negotiator and inspector for the county, said she is being laid off Oct. 1 because her job is being outsourced. She's worked for the county for 34 years.

She said the county needs employees "who are vested in the community, who care about the community."

SEIU said health care premiums for employees have shot up 51 percent since 2008 and that 30 percent or more of what employees earn in wages now goes to their health care needs. The union claims that hundreds of employees have been forced to drop their dependents from coverage as a result of these cost increases.

Isabel Palocios told the crowd she had to put her two children on a subsidized health care plan this year because her family can't pay the county's higher premium costs.