Santa Clara County labor leaders demand apology from councilmember
Maria Fernandez, campaign director of Silicon Valley Rising, speaking at a news conference on Oct. 18, 2021, where she and other labor leaders demanded an apology from Councilmember Matt Mahan. Photo courtesy of Silicon Valley Rising.

Labor leaders demand a San Jose councilmember apologize for criticizing county officials who gave workers a COVID bonus.

Silicon Valley Rising and members of several local unions gathered in front of City Hall on Monday and asked Councilmember Matt Mahan to retract statements he made last week about Santa Clara County workers getting hazard pay.

“Councilmember Matt Mahan took a public stance against working people and attacked Santa Clara County for approving hero pay for county workers,” said Maria Noel Fernandez, campaign director of Silicon Valley Rising. “What’s interesting is that Mahan recently approved similar hero pay for San Jose city workers, and yet months before that (he) voted not to approve hazard pay for grocery store workers.”

Mahan criticized the Board of Supervisors last week for approving $76 million in bonuses for the county’s 22,000 workers, arguing that federal American Rescue Plan Act dollars were not intended for rewarding government employees. Mahan argued that the one-time payment of $2,500 in hazard pay was appropriate for frontline workers, but not employees who worked from home or teleworked. He created an interactive website where residents can see how the $76 million could have been applied to infrastructure, housing and feeding people.

Representatives for several unions, including ATU and SEIU, said many essential workers have contracted COVID-19 and some have died in the line of duty. Tammy Dhanota, a representative for SEIU Local 521, said transit maintenance workers and others have been integral to the county’s operations.

“COVID-19 isn’t over, we’re still working day in and day out,” Dhanota said. “We are and continue to be an essential component of our county’s workforce. All we expect is the respect we deserve.”

Mahan told San José Spotlight frontline county workers deserve gratitude and bonuses—probably larger than the ones given to them by the Board of Supervisors.

“But it makes absolutely no sense to take money directed to COVID relief and recovery to pay highly-paid bureaucrats who did no frontline work,” Mahan said, noting that more than 4,500 county employees earn more than $200,000 per year. “We have families who are going hungry in our county, and the ARP funds should have been used to feed the hungry, not the bureaucrats.”

Earlier this year, Mahan joined his City Council colleagues in approving a one-time $1,000 pandemic bonus for city workers, including high-ranking staff, totaling more than $2.7 million. Mahan said he invites the comparison between the two bonuses because they are nothing alike. He noted that unlike the county, the city did not use American Rescue Plan funds to pay bonuses, which were awarded as part of negotiations with workers.

He added that unlike the county’s bonuses, the city’s bonuses were negotiated against the unions’ request for greater benefits, resulting in cost savings for the city.

“I believe San Jose did the right thing by sitting down with workers and negotiating a contract that saves taxpayers money and allows us to deliver better services,” he said.

But some labor leaders say the money that pays for the bonuses in San Jose comes from the city’s general fund — which includes American Rescue Plan dollars.

Mahan, who is running for mayor, has raised concerns about the county’s expenditures. Mahan pointed to several examples of alleged waste, including projects backed by Supervisor Cindy Chavez, who is also a candidate for mayor. Mahan said he wants to discuss the issue of bonuses with Chavez in a debate.

“I would ask Supervisor Chavez, who is one of the architects of the bonus for bureaucrats plan, to offer her statement on this issue,” Mahan said. “I hope to schedule a debate soon to talk about why the county thinks it’s a good idea to give $76 million in bonuses to all workers, including the 4,500 highly-paid workers.”

In response to a request for comment, Chavez said, “Every candidate should be included in any and all debates and should be heard on any issue we all want addressed.”

Several essential workers at the news conference spoke about the fact that hazard pay was a necessary cushion for households that lost jobs or work hours during the pandemic. Hector Moreno, speaking for UFCW Local 5, criticized Mahan for voting against an extra $3 per hour in hazard pay for grocery workers in San Jose earlier this year.

Mahan opposed the ordinances on the grounds that it would harm small grocery stores operating on narrow profit margins, which would hurt workers and customers by forcing owners to reduce hours and raise prices. He countered with a proposal to limit the hazard pay for workers at publicly-traded companies.

“He didn’t care that they risked their lives to protect our community,” Moreno said. “This is a direct attack on essential workers.”

Contact Eli Wolfe at [email protected] or @EliWolfe4 on Twitter.

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