San Jose workers fleeing city, others rally for higher wages
Elizabeth Kamya, a representative with IFPTE Local 21, said the wage increase proposal for some city workers comes as high job vacancies continue to plague City Hall. Photo courtesy of IFPTE Local 21.

Hundreds of job vacancies, low wages and unmanageable workloads have city workers frustrated and demanding changes.

More than 80 city employees gathered in front of San Jose City Hall early Tuesday as union leaders called for a pay increase for more than 3,000 workers. The city has a workforce of roughly 6,200 employees.

The coalition of unions, made up of Municipal Employee’s Federation (MEF) 101 and International Federation of Professional and Technical Engineers (IFPTE) Local 21, wants to see a 5.5% wage hike for next fiscal year, citing concerns over inflation, high job vacancy rates and a $27.7 million surplus in the city’s budget.

“What we’re asking is an extra $200 for groceries per month,” Elizabeth Kamya, a representative with IFPTE Local 21, told San José Spotlight. “We want the city to invest in its workers. We’re not asking for more than what we need.”

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City worker Jill Mariani said many of her colleagues have left their jobs because of the low pay and unmanageable workload. Photo by Tran Nguyen.

San Jose, the 10th largest city in the U.S., has roughly 800 job vacancies across City Hall. The high vacancy rate has forced workers in some key services to work longer hours or pick up extra shifts, costing San Jose $78 million in overtime last year. Union members said this is the direct result of the noncompetitive, low paying jobs in the city.

City workers last year successfully bargained for a 3.25% wage increase after months of negotiation. The contract guarantees a 3% increase for this year’s contract, but the city also agreed to meet with union leaders again this year to discuss a higher percentage.

IFPTE Local 21 conducted a survey where more than 550 city workers—about two third of its members—said the current pay levels have forced many to move out of the city, go to food banks to feed their families and apply for various governmental assistance programs to stay afloat.

“We have had enough of (the city’s) games and broken promises, we deserve better working conditions and to earn a livable wage,” city worker Jill Mariani said at the rally. “There’s always enough money for their lucrative salaries and for their pet projects, but for our staff that carry out the work—not so much.”

Nick Rovetto, vice president of MEF, said San Jose has also become a “training ground” for other cities, where workers spend several months learning the job, then quickly depart for better offers at cities such as Santa Clara and Sunnyvale. Since February, Rovetto said his group in the planning, building and code enforcement department has lost roughly 10 people who took other jobs around the South Bay.

“The workload has become insane with our vacancies,” Rovetto told San José Spotlight. “What we’re paid here is not efficient to retain people.”

The lack of employees also affects turnaround time for residents in need of city services. Rovetto said he recently learned some residents had to wait seven to eight months before his team could respond to them.

City officials declined to comment on the proposal and Tuesday’s rally.

City employees gathered in front of San Jose City Hall the morning of April 19 as union leaders called for a pay increase for more than 3,000 workers. Photo courtesy of IFPTE Local 21.

San Jose, represented by law firm Sloan Sakai Yeung & Wong LLP, shot down the unions’ proposal at a meeting last week, claiming the city has never agreed to adjust pay based on inflation and that wages are not the only factor in retaining workers, a letter from the law firm reads. IFPTE Local 21 shared the letter with San José Spotlight.

The unions and the city are heading to a second meeting this week, as workers expect a counter offer from the city.

Several San Jose council candidates spoke in support of the unions’ efforts at Tuesday’s rally.

“I wouldn’t be standing here today if it wasn’t for the city librarians and city rec workers who guided folks like myself in a troubled neighborhood into better paths and better opportunities ,” said Omar Torres, who’s running for City Council in District 3. “We’re going to pay you right and we’re also gonna make you love your job better.”

Peter Ortiz, a candidate for the District 5 council seat, also vowed to be an ally to workers if he’s elected.

“It’s time that the city work for its working people,” Ortiz said. “We cannot prioritize the best interest of our residents here in San Jose, while not prioritizing the interest of our workers to deliver vital services.”

Contact Tran Nguyen at [email protected] or follow @nguyenntrann on Twitter.

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