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Sonoma County workers rally outside Board of Supervisors’ meeting, demand end to staffing ‘crisis’

Emma Murphy

Jan 24, 2023

The largest group of unionized Sonoma County government employees (our member local SEIU 1021) held a rally demanding higher wages and a stronger hiring effort to address high vacancies and turnover they say are impacting the delivery of public services.

Published by the Press Democrat on February 24, 2022. Article linked here.

The largest group of unionized Sonoma County government employees held a rally Tuesday demanding higher wages and a stronger hiring effort to address high vacancies and turnover they say are impacting the delivery of public services.

Bearing signs reading “Staff Sonoma” and “Respect Staff,” roughly 100 county employees wearing purple T-shirts delivered that message to the Board of Supervisors at its weekly meeting. The group rallied outside the county’s administration building in Santa Rosa before some of the crowd went inside to speak during the board’s public comment period.

Officials with Service Employees International Union Local 1021 have described a “severe staffing crisis” within county departments. Workers say it is fueling burnout and shouldering employees with an overwhelming workload.

As a result, employees are leaving across departments and management levels, union members say, impacting delivery of services ranging from social work to property tax assessments.

“The county is just hemorrhaging good people,” said Ellie Campbell-Brown, a union officer and adoption social worker with child protective services.

SEIU Local 1021, which represents about 2,300 of the county’s roughly 4,000 employees — the largest local government workforce in the North Bay — is in the middle of contract negotiations with county management. The contract expires in February and SEIU’s main push is for pay hikes to address the high cost of living in Sonoma County, said Jana Blunt, SEIU Local 1021 president.

“What do we want? A contract! When do we want it? Now!” came the group’s rally cry, which reverberated off the marble walls of the main hallway at the administration building as employees marched through Tuesday morning before heading back outside.

The county is taking employees’ concerns seriously, Board of Supervisors Chair Chris Coursey said in an interview Tuesday afternoon. He added the board has been discussing recruitment and retention “long before negotiations started.”

“This is a problem not just in county government...,” Coursey said. “It’s a challenge in every workplace to keep people in jobs.”

In addition to pay hikes, SEIU is seeking better benefits for part-time relief staff and an updated job classification plan.

“There are just fewer and fewer reasons to work at the county, let alone stay,” Blunt said. “It’s not the golden employment that it used to be.”

In December, the Board of Supervisors approved a living wage adjustment to raise wages for its lowest paid workers and county contractors by 2.74%, to $17.25 an hour.

“We’re very happy about (that),” Blunt said.

She added, however, that the living wage raise reflects “how low some of our workers were making.”

Meanwhile, in November consumer prices increased by 6.2% year over year, according to data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, an agency of the U.S. Labor Department.

Blunt said the county has offered 5%, 4% and 3% raises over three years, “a little less than half” of what SEIU proposed.

“Is this how lowly they value the public?” Blunt asked. “Because you get what you pay for.”

Coursey disputed the figures that Blunt outlined and said the county was “offering more” at the table. He described the county’s counter as “probably the best financial package that’s been offered to any county workforce in decades,” but declined to specify the details.

“They want to do their negotiation in public, that’s fine,” Coursey said. “I do not.”

The county’s vacancy rate has hovered around 12% for the past year, but Blunt said the issue began in 2017 following the wildfires.

In April 2022, then-Human Resources Director Christina Cramer highlighted the stress caused by burnout, high vacancies and high turnover during the county’s budget workshops.

“This means staff are strained,” Cramer said during the budget workshops last year. “There are feelings of stress and anxiety and fatigue.”

Cramer recently left the county for a position in Marin County after eight years as the county’s personnel chief.

In December, the board approved hiring bonuses for some new hires, ranging from $25,000 to $30,000 for positions in the Sheriff’s Office.

On Tuesday, several county employees criticized the use of hiring bonuses as a “temporary band aid” that will not keep people long-term.

“It’s lazy and frankly it’s not going to attract the people that we need to serve this county,” said Travis Balzarini, the local chapter’s vice president and employee in the information systems department.

Coursey said the bonuses were intended to speed up hiring.

“I understand that hiring bonuses are not across the board raises,” Coursey said. “We’re offering across the board raises.”

Amos Eaton, an employee in the county’s Human Services Department who is currently on leave, said the impact of a shrinking workforce can cause safety issues, such as when road crews are spread thin, and lead those waiting for social services to fall through the cracks. The shortages are also causing delays in other government work like issuing permits, he said.

“When we’re understaffed we can’t provide the services they ask of us,” said Eaton, who has worked for the county for 17 years and is a union officer.

In an interview after the rally, Campbell-Brown, who has worked for the county for 15 years, said it is taking “a year or longer” to process adoptions.

Addressing the Board of Supervisors, Sherry Bradford described how new hires at a county-run call center usually do not stay longer than six months.

“The public should be very angry,” Bradford said.

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