Are striking SLO County workers exaggerating their financial struggles?

December 13, 2018


A group of striking San Luis Obispo County government workers claimed Tuesday they do not make livable wages, yet many, if not most, of the employees currently on strike collect between $50,000 and $100,000 in annual pay plus five-digit benefit packages. [Cal Coast Times]

On Tuesday, the first day of a three-day strike, San Luis Obispo County Employees’ Association (SLOCEA) members picketed outside the county building. Dozens of union members packed the board of supervisors chamber, where some held signs and spoke during public comment.

Some speakers cried as they discussed their financial hardships and asked for higher pay. Several speakers said they are currently on Medi-Cal, and one said she is in Section 8 housing, raising questions as to whether the workers are giving factual public testimony or possibly providing false information when applying for government assistance.

“Very much pride and humility to admit the fact that even after a five-year (employment), me and my two children, we still qualify for Medi-Cal and Section 8,” Cassandra DeSpain, a county employment/resource specialist, said during public comment. “If my wages were fair living wages, there is absolutely no reason I should qualify for those programs.”

Yet in 2017, DeSpain received $58,626 in pay and $74,828 in total compensation, according to the Transparent California database.

In order to qualify for Section 8 housing in SLO County, a three-person household must have a gross income of no more than $37,450, according to the HUD income limits listed on the Housing Authority of San Luis Obispo’s website.

Cal Coast Times reviewed the pay received by about half of the county workers who spoke during public comment at the board of supervisors meeting. Of those employees, in 2017, most received pay of more than $50,000. On the low end, one worker was paid only $44,200 while receiving $59,448 in total compensation.

On the high end, one speaker received $101,035 in pay and more than $130,000 in total compensation.

When factoring in overtime and other pay, as well as benefits, multiple individuals who spoke during public comment receive more than $100,000 annually in total compensation.

In 2017, Clark Guest, a drug and alcohol program supervisor, received $134,809 in total compensation. James Mallon, a supervising appraiser, received $132,403; Allison Mee, a social worker, received $116,905; and Amber Trigueros, a mental health therapist, received $116,619.

“We are underpaid,” Mee said during her public comment. “You took away our callback time.”

Mee, as well as other social workers, criticized the county for reducing the amount of pay they receive for answering the phone during on-call overnight shifts. The social workers contend they are not fairly compensated for getting woken up at night, sometimes repeatedly, before going to work the next morning.

County officials recently agreed to give SLOCEA members .5 percent increases for the current fiscal year and additional 2 percent raises, effective July 1, 2019. The union members are demanding immediate raises of an additional 2.5 percent, to give them 3 percent raises for the 2018-2019 fiscal year.

As a result of the strike, the county has temporarily shuttered all public library branches in the county, and multiple mental health services are either shutting their doors or cutting their hours of operation during the strike. On Tuesday, multiple library workers and social services employees spoke during public comment.

“We do not feel valued,” said Mary Blair, a library branch manager. “They started off offering us zero. It is not being part of a team.”

In 2017, Blair received $65,258 in pay and $82,910 in total compensation.

In support of the strike, union members said they are vastly underpaid compared to government workers in comparable counties as documented in a third-party fact finder report. The report recommended the county give SLOCEA members a 3 percent raise.

However, critics say SLOCEA members are overpaid compared to private sector workers, and the constant wage comparisons to other county governments are driving up government employee salary and benefit costs at a time SLO County is facing more than $360 million in unfunded pension liabilities.

Prior to Tuesday’s board meeting, SLO County officials said 3 percent raises were not affordable. However, public statements made by striking workers appear to have garnered sympathy from board members.

All four supervisors in attendance at Tuesday’s meeting said they are willing to meet with union members to discuss their concerns. Supervisor Lynn Compton was absent on Tuesday because of a family emergency

“We will move forward together,” Supervisor Bruce Gibson said.

Supervisor Adam Hill appeared on both KSBY and KCOY, noting his sympathy for union members who Hill said deserved higher wages.

“It’s painful, to be honest with you,” Hill said to KSBY. “I don’t think that we have been fully aware of how difficult it is on many of our employees.”

A review of the individual supervisors’ pay shows Hill receives the highest total compensation, slightly more than Gibson and more than $40,000 above Supervisor John Peschong, who accepts the smallest benefits package of the five board members.

In 2017, Hill received $141,229 in total compensation, of which benefits accounted for $48,543. Hill has received more than $40,000 in benefits each of the last four years, as has Gibson, who has collected slightly less than Hill.

At the other end, in 2017, Peschong received $100,820 in total compensation, of which benefits accounted for $18,348. During Tuesday’s board meeting, Peschong said he knew many of the comments made by county workers came from the heart.

Supervisor Debbie Arnold, the median benefits collector among board members, said everyone on the dais would like to meet with employees to discuss their concerns.

Following the meeting, Arnold voiced concerns about the county fiscal woes, including a current budget deficit of more than $4 million and the ongoing costs of increased compensation. Since 2014, the county has paid out more than $40 million in overall compensation increases, Arnold said.

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Total compensation is your salary + what your job contributes to your health insurance + what your job contributes to your pension.

To have an accurate understanding of what someone has to spend on living expenses, one has to look at salary alone. A family of 4 working for the County is forced to pay about $1200 out of pocket (out of that salary) to cover health insurance. The County does contribute an amount toward the expensive health insurance they require employees to take. The County also requires people pay in to and participate in a Pension trust. The County contributes a percentage, but the employee also pays hundreds of dollars per month out of their salary toward that pension.

County employees are complaining that that at the end of the day, take home salaries after all the forced deductions make it nearly impossible to afford to live on the Central Coast. Nurses for the County often require more education, but are paid FAR less than working in other sectors in SLO County. I can’t speak to other job classes because I do not have anything to compare. Yes, nurses can leave the County. I know nurses who have left working for the County. It really is sad, because there is so much behind the scenes with regard to public health and safety that gets done that the Public never has to lose sleep about.

Some of those other staffers: Librarians often have master degrees, social workers have at minimum a Bachelor’s Degree, often a Master’s Degree, ERS workers usually have an AA degree and thus earn less money. Just something to consider.

I am pro union. They have backed me when I have fought for patient safety. I think employees have a right to bargain and negotiate. Union employees serve to keep wages livable and competitive. I don’t know if what the employees are asking for is fair. What I do notice is that law enforcement and upper management, board of supervisors seems to get raises religiously. They aren’t the only people who bring valuable service to SLO County.

It never ends, the wallet envy — pitting public workers against private-sector workers. It’s a race to the bottom, and nobody wins.

What is interesting would be to know the raises that were approved to management. 10%? 6%? Could’ve been more fair. Probably wouldn’t have been an issue to begin with. Also what would be interesting to know would be other counties in California. If I’m not mistaken, SLO County is lowest paid in the State! Love this article telling both sides. Not the cheapest to live in the State either. Several employees have student debt and children.