Hundreds of Santa Clara County workers rally for health care, wages

Hundreds of union members poured out in front of the Santa Clara County Board of Supervisors’ chambers Wednesday in the blistering heat, rallying for an increase in wages and services for county workers as the supervisors inside deliberated on next year’s funding priorities during a budget hearing.

Union leaders from SEIU Local 521 advocated for a more “transparent” budgeting process that provides “critical services” intended to help cover the cost of basic living needs, such as housing and child care, in one of the country’s most expensive regions.

“People are really suffering,” said Riko Mendez, chief elected officer for SEIU, Local 521. “There’s a way for us to make an impact with our proposals around housing and for real, affordable child care. We’re asking that the county take our proposals seriously.”

Mendez said that the union is proposing $2 million a month from the budget to create an affordable healthcare fund that the community could access — regardless of an individual’s income — to help pay for child care services. In addition, union leaders are demanding an increase in workers’ wages.

The crowd — as many as 800 people according to SEIU’s sign-in sheet — cheered as community leaders chanted slogans such as “Si Se Puede” while people held signs that read, “We need to live where we work” and “Fair contract now.” Several workers shared stories about how their current pay has undermined their ability to stay housed, feed their families or support their children.

County officials and union representatives are in the midst of negotiating a new contract. The deadline to finalize negotiations is Sunday. If no agreement is reached, at least 11,000 workers represented by SEIU, Local 521 in the Bay Area region and in the Central Valley will be without a contract.

“When I came to the county, I had to make tremendous sacrifices, and one of them is child care,” said Lilia Jacobo, 40, a senior healthcare representative and single mother to a son with special needs. “My son was diagnosed with autism, global developmental delay, and he also suffers from seizures. Trying to find reasonable child care was a necessity.”

Jacobo said that her dad had to retire early to help with in-home care for her son, while she was at work because she couldn’t afford the $12,000 a year in child care costs. After taxes, Jacobo said she earns around $55,000, less than average income for union members in the county, estimated around $68,804, according to a SEIU report.

“This economy in the heart of Santa Clara County is so expensive. The county needs to do something about that,” added Jacobo. “The Board of Supervisors sit pretty, all making over $100,000. They’re not worried. Well, let me transfer my burdens over to their home so they can go home at night and tell their kids, ‘I can’t give you that.’ They have no idea what we go through.”

But county officials are weighing more than just a pay bump for workers. The nearly $8.1 billion budget is set to cover the costs of the merger of O’Connor and St. Louise Hospitals into the county health system, criminal justice reform, a new juvenile and mental health center — top priorities for the next year.

The main focus for the year, according to County Executive Jeff Smith, is to prioritize building and maintaining existing programs rather than pumping money into new projects — based on the expectation that the economy will dip.

“During normal times in California, counties expect an economic cycle of about a decade. Current times are anything but normal,” Smith said in a statement. “Although California and the Silicon Valley are, by nature, relatively protected from the national risks, the memory of the 2008 recession hangs over our heads. We were careful to only recommend growth that we were confident that we could afford.”

Still, union leaders are pushing back against the idea that the economy is on a downturn. In a report conducted by SEIU, the union said the county’s budget has been off by at least $1 billion over the past five years.

“It’s clear that the county has a long pattern of under-budgeting their revenues and over-budgeting their expenses,” said a report from SEIU. “This effectively denies Santa Clara County residents and workers the chance to gain an accurate understanding of the true budget projections.”

While the wage contract is at the heart of the debate, Mendez said the rally was also about providing a pathway to housing and social services that gives the entire community a place to live. “Working class people” are struggling to make ends meet with the salaries they have, Mendez added, and the region’s rising cost-of-living pushes them to live on the streets or in their cars, commute from farther distances, and pay exorbitant amounts in child care costs.

Many of the union members are clerical or social workers, service workers, nurses and healthcare workers.

If a deal between the union and county leaders isn’t reached by Sunday, the existing contract can be extended to buy more time, or the county’s workers may go on strike. The county’s current offer is a 1 percent wage increase for SEIU workers, a wage cut according to labor leaders when adjusted for inflation. SEIU is asking for a 9 percent general wage increase. Several SEIU workers at the rally said anything below a 5 percent increase was “insulting.”

If a worthwhile compromise isn’t reached, Mendez said the county supervisors will be “in for the fight of their lives.”

“Organized labor is the last bastion of keeping corporate interests from taking over the entire economy,” he said. “The disparity between the rich and poor is wider than it’s ever been. People working together and unionizing is really the most effective way to counterbalance that and provide a better place for everyone.”

Contact Nadia Lopez at nadia@sanjosespotlight.com or follow @n_llopez on Twitter.

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