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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Civil service is a good job anywhere and an excellent job in this area. You’ll still need two incomes to afford a home but banks look favorably on government income for it’s dependability. A raise of two or three percent a year seems reasonable and there’s a sting to it when management raises themselves and not the ones doing the actual grunt work.

I wonder if when the Supervisors attended the last BOS meeting they would also be attending the theater, and the actors…. I mean county employees who spoke, would be putting on such a good performance. One thing they left off was dressing in costumes, looking the part of poor people digging through trash cans for food. Cassandra DeSpain and her fellow actors should be ashamed of themselves. If I wasn’t working everyday in the private sector I would love to attend the next BOS meeting and hold up a $100,000 sign anytime one of these actors speaks about their poverty level salaries. I’m pretty sure Gibson and Hill will vote to give them more money after their performance but hopefully Arnold, Peschong and Compton will see through their fake and dishonest performance.

My gut tells me that DeSpain isn’t the only county employee who deserves investigation for welfare fraud…birds of a feather. If she’s guilty, lock her up…lock them all up!

Did anyone notice that these complainers are getting close to 1/3 over base pay in benefits? Those benefits mean current and future (?) health care; vacation and sick leave, and generous retirement. Hard to justify higher pay.

The County is trying to be fiscally responsible. Not something we tax payers see often in government decisions.

If these folks on strike could make more elsewhere, they would seek and get those better paying jobs. I suspect that they already know they are well paid and receive generous benefits that would be hard if not impossible to replicate in the private sector.

And you know what… a lot of people are leaving. That’s why the county was looking to fill an HR position responsible for turnover and employee retention. They took the job posting down because if the negative comments they were getting from county employees. If this reporter really did his job he would also see that the county is lying when they tell the public their numbers and “their fiscal woes”..

Listen. These transparent California sites are great. However, these do not include all deductions that have to be paid out. Do you really think she took home $51,413 last year? That’s absurd. Transparent California shows where the tax dollars go. Basically, how much does it cost per year to have this person employed? DeSpain does not get to take home $51k. The workers are striking for a higher cost of living adjustment and for better health benefits. The cost of health benefits is so high that these county workers can’t afford it. Stop reporting this like these workers are taking home what Transparent California reports. There’s more to it than that, and frankly, it’s a little disquieting that you haven’t done any research concerning those numbers.

Supervisors are not the same as management. I’m not sure that Josh was listening to what each person was saying, but Clark Guest, the supervisor for drug and alcohol, was upset not because of the pay, but because this whole media situation told all of the people who are supposed to get randomly drug tested that there would be no testing this week. Guess what? Now you’ve given potentially risky clients a free ride for one whole week. Now, these people believe they are not accountable for their actions this week, and that’s why Clark Guest was there.

This level of reporting is sad. Not only are you not reporting every detail to have your readers make a judgment on their own, but you’re not even doing the county workers justice by being impartial. Quit getting your news sources from Facebook commenters and start actually reporting the news.

Also, Lynn Compton may have had an “emergency,” but she’s very public about being against the county workers. Maybe she couldn’t take the heat.

Without commenting on the details of the story, as a retired journalism professor, I applaud CalCoastNews for taking the initiative in doing this research.

I think Cassandra DeSpain should be investigated for fraud. I’ve work in the private sector here in SLO for 30+ years and am just now making 70K and I pay for my own “benefits”. They have a lot of nerve thinking I should pay more in taxes so they can make so much more than me.

I don’t think that it may so much be that they don’t make enough livable wages but more because of the SLO lifestyle. When you add up the costs enjoying what is offered in SLO for “entertainment” it becomes very very expensive. For some that means making sacrifices or modifying the lifestyle that you want. Just add up all of the costs of cell phones, internet, cable tv, wine tasting, concerts and those new vehicles and yes that may put a strain on the lifestyle that they want. What would they say if they were not getting all of those benefit packages? There are many more people in SLO that don’t have it this good and make the sacrifices needed to live in SLO. When there pay goes up so does our taxes fees etc. and we go backwards while they obtain their dream of living the SLO lifestyle to the fullest out of our wallets. But they say I can’t afford a home. Well not everyone can. If that were the case they wouldn’t build apartments.

Taxes won’t “go up” because of this. And if you’re concerned about costs, why don’t you ask the Board why they just approved 5-15% increases for Management series, who already make the money that this author is describing above (albeit incorrectly).

You read that right: all Management at the very top got their raises pushed through. It’s nice being at the top, isn’t it?

Well, IF the strike was about managements wages then I suppose what they earn would be relevant but, this particular strike is about our low paid lower echelon who have now been somewhat exposed now haven’t they? Josh don’t mess around and you geniuses who went on record should have more brains than that.

Taxes won’t go up? Where do you think the money comes from? It comes from the General Fund and most local jurisdictions use about 75% of their General Fund for, you guessed it, salaries, benefits and all of the other perks. Somebody has to feed the monster and it will be the taxpayers. The BOS are just hypocrites, plain and simple. I would be upset too.

Where is the money for raises going to come from, then? Have you looked at the County budget? It’s in deficit. They don’t have “unspent” money lying around that they can throw to the striking employees. Future raises compound on top of past raises, so it’s just digging a deeper and deeper hole. At some point, you need to stop digging.

Pending your job class some county workers getting screwed while others are not. With ONE union representing the full spectrum of job classes just muddy’s the water. I would answer the articles question as yes and no.

Great stuff Josh. I’m laughing over Despain’s comments. Who will follow up to make sure she gets prosecuted for lying to the Section 8 folks while pulling down $59,000+?

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