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One-year extension of Sonoma County employee contracts falls apart

Discussions between Sonoma County labor unions and government officials about a proposed one-year contract extension have broken down, partly because of disagreements about whether the county can afford to raise employee pay in the aftermath of the October wildfires.

A coalition of unions representing nearly all organized county employees had sought to extend their current contracts, which expire this year, rather than launch intense negotiations for longer-term agreements while the region is focused on recovering from the worst fires in its history.

As part of the extension, the unions also sought a 2 percent pay increase to cover the rising cost of living in the area, but the county insists it can’t agree to that amid lingering uncertainty over how severely the fires will hurt government finances.

With the one-year extension talks now derailed, the county and each union will return to the time-intensive process of hammering out new agreements on their own as the current contracts expire over the coming months.

“This is the exact situation we wanted to avoid,” said Joel Evans-Fudem, president of the Sonoma County chapter of SEIU Local 1021, the county’s largest union. “I thought we had a path to get there. ... It didn’t seem like it was their highest priority to get this off the table and move forward together.”

County officials previously estimated they could face a $21 million shortfall at the end of this fiscal year because of increased costs and lower tax revenue stemming from the fires. Some help is expected from the state and federal governments, but Board of Supervisors chairman James Gore said too much remains uncertain for the county to implement a cost-of-living adjustment for its 4,000-member workforce.

“We’re just in a complete unknown area with respect to our budget,” Gore said. “It would not be responsible for us to agree to pay raises at a time when we are projecting out what our deficit will be.”

In a labor negotiations update posted online last week, county officials characterized the prospect of a 2 percent cost-of-living pay raise as a “financial risk” that could trigger service reductions and layoffs and force the county to dip into its reserves to fund higher operating costs. The county health department — which was facing budgetary challenges before the fires — is already looking at eliminating as many as 40 staff positions this year.

Another sticking point in the one-year extension talks involved a change county officials wanted to make to contract language affecting health benefits for union-represented retirees and current county administrative management.

Currently, the two groups’ health benefits are linked, so union retirees get the same benefits granted to current managers, and any increase given to one group also applies to the other. The county wanted to alter the unions’ contract language so each group would be handled separately, allowing officials to boost managers’ medical benefits — similar to improvements employees received several years ago — without raising the county’s unfunded liability for retiree benefits, according to human resources director Christina Cramer.

“We would like the flexibility to negotiate retiree health benefits and active health benefits independent of each other for each union,” Cramer said. “The contract language that we wanted does not lower the retiree health benefits in any way, but it becomes standalone language and no longer connected to administrative managers in the salary resolution.”

Evans-Fudem said the county’s proposed change was “completely unacceptable” to labor leaders, characterizing it as a move that would allow officials to improve benefits for managers while neglecting the needs of retirees who, like current employees, are still struggling to handle the high cost of living in the area.

The county did agree to absorb insurance premium increases this year so employees wouldn’t see any increase in their out-of-pocket medical costs, Cramer said. But it wasn’t enough to offset the unions’ push for a cost-of-living adjustment.

Evans-Fudem said he wasn’t convinced by the county’s argument about fiscal uncertainty, noting the state was moving to backfill lost property tax revenue and the federal government took steps to increase its share of the bill for fire debris removal.

In any case, he remained hopeful the negotiations process could still avoid a messy labor dispute that would detract from the recovery effort.

“The process that we were engaged in could have been a lot simpler and a lot quicker, but even full-blown contract negotiations does not have to be as time consuming and acrimonious as it has been in the past,” Evans-Fudem said. “I’m still optimistic that we can find a relatively fast, simple, fair way forward for the workers. It’s just going to be a lot more difficult.”