San Jose workers demand more money amid hundreds of vacancies
Hundreds of San Jose city employees protest outside of city hall amid ongoing contract negotiations. Photo by Jana Kadah.

    More than 4,000 San Jose employees are asking for a raise—but the city has yet to come close to meeting their demands.

    For the past 13 weeks, a coalition of two unions representing more than half of the city’s employees—MEF-AFSCME Local 101 and IFPTE Local 21—have been in salary negotiations to adjust for cost of living. The coalition calls itself Staff Up San Jose and includes librarians, city planners, veterinarians, the fire department, housing department officials and more. Their contract ends in July and they initially asked for a 9% raise for the 2023-24 fiscal year, 8% the following year and 7% in the third year. The city’s initial counteroffer was significantly lower—just 3% each year for the next three years. As negotiations with the city continue, the union has lowered their ask from 9% to 7% for the first fiscal year.

    “It doesn’t feel good to know the city hasn’t worked more with us to give us what we deserve,” fire department dispatcher Scarlet Darmousseh told San José Spotlight. “Half of us can’t afford to live in a city that we work in. The city isn’t trying to be comparable to other cities or agencies in the Bay Area. The raise would basically show that the city appreciates us.”

    City employees are asking for more money to compensate for the additional work on their plates as the city struggles to fill more than 900 vacant positions—or 14% of the workforce, according to city data. However, city officials have pushed back against these pay demands, saying they are limited by overall budget concerns because they predict an $18.8 million shortfall next fiscal year.

    During Tuesday’s city council meeting, hundreds of Staff Up San Jose members rallied outside city hall as elected leaders voted to approve contracts for three other unions—San Jose Police Dispatchers’ Association, Association of Building, Mechanical and Electrical Inspectors and the Peace Officer Park Ranger Association. City data reported that these 265 employees will receive a 5% raise next year, 4% the following and 3% in the 2025-26 fiscal year. This is also the current offer San Jose is making to Staff Up San Jose unions.

    Despite Mayor Matt Mahan lauding the progress of these contract agreements, Darmousseh said it hurts that thousands of other workers are still in negotiations. Her department is currently at about half capacity, which she said leads to slower response times and overtime for workers who are already overwhelmed responding to fires, heart attacks and other health scares.

    Similarly, Michael Jun, a development officer in the housing department, said the vacancies in his office have affected how quickly the city moves affordable housing projects forward. He said he has seen talented colleagues leave the department due to burnout or getting job offers with better pay.

    “People leave all the time so we lose institutional knowledge. It puts things on hold and it’s a scramble for everyone else to try to pick up the projects,” Jun told San José Spotlight.

    Jun’s concerns are reflected in areas like the city’s planning department, where vacancies there have led to massive backlogs in permitting. It used to take about 25 days to issue a permit, but now it takes almost a year, city data showed.

    But city officials said San Jose is not unique in this situation. According to data released last month, Santa Clara has a vacancy rate of 16.96% and the county is at 16.30%—both higher than San Jose. Mahan said this is important to note because Santa Clara County has more jobs per capita, and while the county is cutting vacant positions, San Jose is not.

    “The city is committed to continuing to invest in our workforce and increase wages, but to do so in a way that doesn’t reduce services, or put us on the path to future financial instability,” Mahan told San José Spotlight.

    Vacancy rates across local cities and counties. Data and graph courtesy of San Jose.

    Representatives from IFPTE Local 21 said while vacancy rates may be comparable to other local governments, these agencies have increased wages at a much higher rate than San Jose. For example, Contra Costa County, which also has similar vacancy struggles, recently approved a 15% raise over the next three years, said Elizabeth Kamya, a union bargainer for San Jose city employees.

    “The city must acknowledge that there’s never going to be a right time (to budget for more raises), but there is going to be a time where it’s too late. And right now we have an opportunity to correct the course, and to provide equitable wages,” Kamya told San José Spotlight.

    Union representatives are suggesting the $178 million budgeted for vacant San Jose positions be used for raises. They also point to a consistent budget surplus from these dollars over the last 10 years as further reason for the funds to be reallocated.

    However, Jennifer Schembri, director of human resources, said those dollars can’t be used for raises.

    Schembri noted the success the city has had in hiring over the last year by streamlining the hiring process, reducing minimum requirements for hiring and increasing the referral bonus from $500 to $1,500.

    San Jose vacancy rates since July 2022. Courtesy of San Jose.

    Kamya said these hiring rates are hopeful signs, but wages must increase to fix San Jose’s systemic and yearslong vacancy problem.

    She also said the city could increase retirement, family leave and other benefits to retain talent.

    “We’re not asking to be the most competitive, but we are asking them to be at a competitive point in the market,” Kamya said. “What they’re offering is just not.”

    Contact Jana Kadah at [email protected] or follow @Jana_Kadah on Twitter.

    Editor’s Note: A previous version of this story reported that city employees represented by the union coalition did not receive a raise in 2020 based on a sourcing error. They were given a 3% raise in 2020. The story has been updated.

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