South Bay workers allege ‘unstable’ workplace, petition to unionize
First 5 Santa Clara County office in San Jose. Photo by Tran Nguyen.

Retaliation, discriminatory treatment and job loss: those are the working conditions employees say they’ve faced for years at FIRST 5 Santa Clara County.

Now some workers are pushing to unionize to improve those conditions.

“Our turnover rate says it all—we have lost so much amazing talent due to the maltreatment that has become commonplace,” said Eula Idemoto, a FIRST 5 assistant director and member of the group of workers in favor of unionizing. She said in each of her three years working with FIRST 5, the turnover rate was upward of 25% to 30%.

On July 9, a group of 44 workers backed by Service Employees International Union (SEIU) 521 filed a petition to unionize with the California Public Employment Relations Board. One worker told San José Spotlight that FIRST 5 Santa Clara County employs 54 people.

The workers looking to unionize include directors, assistant directors, program officers, coordinators, specialists and controllers, among others, according to the petition obtained by San José Spotlight.

Across the Bay Area, FIRST 5 employees in Alameda, San Francisco and San Mateo counties are all union workers, Idemoto said.

For more than two decades, FIRST 5 Santa Clara County has provided services and supported development programs for children from prenatal through age five, especially for those who live in underserved communities.

Employees say the organization’s upper management has long abused their power, keeping them out of decision-making processes and creating “unstable working conditions.”

With longtime CEO Jolene Smith‘s retirement in June, employees say they now want a voice in how things are decided under new leadership.

“We are in a transition and a lot of decisions are being made very quickly,” Idemoto said.

Some of which are not consistent with FIRST 5’s goals and missions, according to other workers.

“The way our organization is structured, the decision-making power lies in the hands of only a few people,” FIRST 5 director Zulema Inai told San José Spotlight. “(This effort) is to ensure all the voices are heard.”

FIRST 5 management didn’t respond to inquiries about its employees’ allegations and efforts to unionize.

FIRST 5 Santa Clara County is one of the first branches of First 5 California, which is mainly funded by tobacco tax revenues through the Children and Families Act. The local organization is governed by a nine-member commission appointed by the county Board of Supervisors.

The organization plays a pivotal role in different youth programs in the county, including the early childcare program that targets the most vulnerable student populations at Franklin-McKinley School District and Alum Rock School District. FIRST 5 is also home to a bilingual children’s book series called “Potter the Otter.”

Over the last year, the organization served more than 74,000 kids, the majority of whom were Latinx or Asian. In the early months of the pandemic, FIRST 5 pivoted from hosting children’s programs to offering free, basic supplies such as diapers, wipes and formula to families in need. Its budget for last year was approximately $15 million.

A longstanding issue

Inai told San José Spotlight that FIRST 5 employees are the bridges to families and kids in underserved communities, but management often disregards their input and perspectives.

“We are from these communities and we have the lived experiences,” Inai said. “But when you bring in the communities’ perspectives (to FIRST 5), those contributions are dismissed… That affects employee morale and performance.”

Employees say whenever they bring up issues or concerns, management responds with resistance—and even retaliation.

The organization has also discriminated against some people in hiring and promotion processes, FIRST 5 Coordinator Evelyn Lissete O’Marah said in a news release.

“As the employee with the longest tenure at FIRST 5, and as a woman of color, I have witnessed and faced the challenges, and paid the consequences of discrimination and retaliation from senior management staff,” she said. “Throughout the years, I learned to stay focused on what I could control in order to keep my job and protect my daughter’s future.”

Ten days after the group of workers filed the petition to unionize, the Office of the County Counsel confirmed in a letter to the state that FIRST 5 management posted a notice of the petition in the office kitchen.

Workers said they didn’t know about the notice in the kitchen until San José Spotlight told them.

Screenshot of a letter from Office of the County Counsel to the state regarding First 5 workers’ petition to unionize.

The FIRST 5 office on Moorpark Avenue in San Jose has been closed to the majority of employees because of the pandemic. While some workers go to the office for their responsibilities, Idemoto said “no one is in there full-time right now.” Employees also have to get permission to enter the workplace, she added.

“Staff wants our work to be community-centered,” Idemoto said. “It’s their life’s work to serve… This is about doing the work with integrity.”

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

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