By Deb Murphy
Members of an Inyo County employees union went back to the bargaining table Thursday in an attempt to break an apparent impasse in its year-long contract negotiations.
Details of the negotiations have been publicized through a series of press releases, from both the union, The Inyo County Employees Association, Local 315 of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, and the County. But Monday evening, the ICEA held a public meeting with personal stories from union members and a financial analysis by AFSCME’s labor economist.
Inyo County Supervisors were invited to the town hall meeting, but none attended. The meeting room at Jill Kinmont Boothe School was filled with more than 60 residents, Inyo employees and representatives from the union.
In March of last year, the ICEA negotiators’ asked for a 4-percent cost of living adjustment and retention of the County’s policy to allow employees to “sell back” a week’s worth of unused sick leave. The County started with a 0.5-percent increase for the next two years with a 1-percent COLA in the third year of the contract and no sick leave sell back.
The parties hit a wall with the union ending up at a 2-percent increase per year for three years and a modification of the sick leave policy that would keep it intact once a 350 sick-leave hours had accrued. The County’s stance: a 1-percent COLA for two years with a 2-percent increase in the third year. The County’s sell-back policy offer, 600 sick-leave hours, would take nearly five years before an employee could use the sell-back bonus, according to chief negotiator Chris Wickham. A 1-percent raise for the lower-paid union members would amount to a 12-cent an hour pay hike, Wickham said.
The 250 to 260 employees in the ICEA include service providers in the Department of Health and Human Services as well as road maintenance, mosquito abatement, environmental health, restaurant inspectors and library, airport, parks, animal control, waste management, wetlands management, dispatch and election workers. According to Wickham, the last raises were given in July 2015.
Labor economist Gary Storrs put to rest any argument the County couldn’t afford the ICEA’s offer. “The (financial) trends are positive,” he said at the end of his presentation. “The revenues are up, expenses are down. This is inconsistent with an argument the County can’t increase pay. The evidence indicates this county has a lot of fiscal flexibility.”
Based on audited financial statements from fiscal years 2013-2015, Storrs said the County’s unassigned, or contingency, funds were 40-percent of annual expenditures at the end of fiscal year 2015, far above the recommended 17-percent level.
Recruitment and retention were big issues for employees who made statements at the meeting. An H&HS employee talked about doing three jobs because of unfilled positions. “We’re service workers,” she said, “at the bottom. We’re not asking for the moon. We’re trying to do this for the future, for the entry-level jobs.”
An employee at the County’s Parker House for crisis placements was demoted to keep costs down. “We’re just asking to be paid what we’re worth,” she said.
Many of the speakers referred to the tourist-based economy and higher cost of living in the County, a cost that exceeds the 2-percent increase the union has asked for.
A member of the Behavioral Health Department reminded the audience she “served the under-served. “This is not all about the money. It’s about keeping services for the under-served up and running.”
The final speaker suggested audience members check out the County’s website (http://www.inyocounty.us/EmployeeBenefits.html) for a run-down of salary ranges.