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County workers to get 8 weeks of paid parental leave in new contract

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Numerous Sonoma County government employees will benefit from two months of fully -paid parental leave if members of the county’s largest union sign off on a new contract deal over the next week and the Board of Supervisors adopts it next month.

County officials and leaders from Service Employees International Union Local 1021 came to terms Friday on a contract that would last through the end of February, after which both parties hope to secure a new multiyear agreement.

Terms of the tentative agreement include a lump sum payment equal to about 2  percent of salary and salary-related benefits for members of the union, which represents around half of the county’s about 4,000  employees.

The proposed contract would also would provide eight weeks of paid time off for employees who become new parents — a key additional benefit sought by the union’s leaders, who are urging members to vote in favor.

Voting began Monday night and ends next Tuesday, according to Joel Evans-Fudem, president of SEIU’s Sonoma County chapter.

If the union approves the contract, county supervisors will take it up at their next public meeting July 10.

Paid parental leave was critically important to the union, which wanted to see the county provide more support for all new parents, regardless of sex or whether they are adopting or fostering a child.

Under earlier agreements, the county didn’t offer its own category of paid time off specifically for employees bonding with a new child, though workers could use protected time allowed through state and federal laws and draw from their accrued vacation time or sick time balances.

“It was shameful, honestly,” Evans-Fudem said. “So getting that was huge.”

Employees would be able to use the new benefit for bonding time within their new child’s first year, according to Christina Cramer, the county’s human resources director.

The paid time off can also can apply during an employee’s disability period toward the end of their pregnancy and immediately after childbirth, Cramer said.

Most county employees don’t pay into the state’s disability plan, making them ineligible for short-term disability benefits provided by the state and the state’s paid family leave program, she said.

County employees can already be paid for the entirety of their parental leave if they’ve accrued enough sick time and vacation hours, but “the newer employees don’t have that,” Cramer said.

“They are forced with the decision of, I gotta pay my bills or come back to work and leave my child,” she said. “This basically gives another pay bucket specifically for ... being paid to bond with a new child.”

Board of Supervisors chairman James Gore called the parental leave addition “totally a common-sense proposal” and said it was “asinine” for the county not to have such a benefit in place.

“This is a big win for employees, but also for our values,” Gore said. “I can’t look people in the eye and tell them that they only get a couple (paid) days off with their kid. That’s crap.”

Contract negotiations were supposed to start in earnest in October, but the wildfires upended those plans, shifting the focus of county leaders and rank-and-file employees alike to the immediate disaster response.

A coalition of unions later asked the county to extend the provisions of their contracts by one year, along with a 2 percent pay increase they wanted to help cover the rising cost of living.

But those talks broke down early this year as county officials insisted they couldn’t afford to raise all members’ annual pay amid a period of deep uncertainty about the total financial toll the fires would place on county government coffers.

Under the tentative contract SEIU leaders agreed to early Friday morning, the county would instead provide a one-time, non-recurring payment of about 2 percent of workers’ annual salary and benefits related to their salary.

“Our folks have worked their tails off since these fires,” Gore said. “There is no county without employees, and they’re having a hard time living in our community, too.”

The agreement also provides employees with two more paid days off each year: one in honor of Cesar Chavez Day and another 8-hour floating holiday to observe a holiday of their choosing. Workers will get another one-time, 8-hour floating holiday to make up for this year’s Cesar Chavez Day, which already passed.

“We have a large Latino population, and a large labor population and people who really care about civil rights in this community,” Evans-Fudem said. “So not having that didn’t really make any sense. We’d been asking for it for years.”

The contract would further require the county to cover the recently -increased costs of employees’ health insurance premiums, and it would also decouple health benefits of county administrative managers and union-represented retirees.

The two groups are currently linked, so union retirees get the same benefits granted for active managers, but the county had pushed for flexibility to negotiate with each group separately.

The county already reached an agreement with another much smaller union, the International Union of Operating Engineers Local 39.

Discussions with nine other unions are ongoing, and those talks will determine if the new parental leave hours are provided to members of other labor groups as well, Cramer said.