Social workers and mental health specialists in Stanislaus County went on indefinite strike this week, participating in the second such protest in a matter of months that has left community members without access to vital public programs.
Close to 700 county workers represented by Service Employees International Union Local 521 have been without a labor contract since July 1, and unsuccessful negotiations since then led employees to strike for one day on Nov. 5 in response to what they are calling “unfair labor practices.”
A second, indefinite strike began Thursday after negotiations between SEIU Local 521 and County management the day prior were unsuccessful.
“We are here on the strike line, and the Board of Supervisors hasn’t called us back yet to negotiate the contract,” said Karyn Clark, a Behavioral Health Specialist with the County who also serves on SEIU 521’s bargaining team. “We do know the community is already being affected.”
County employees on the picket line believe departments which provide social services critical to the community are understaffed and underpaid, forcing workers to neglect their clients in order to keep up with their work as well as pushing away new hires who to tend to leave and work for neighboring, higher-paying counties.
Negotiations so far have failed SEIU Local 521 members, who are seeking a staff-to-client ratio that is manageable for workers after nearly one-third of union-represented positions have left the County for more competitive positions nearby in the past three years.
With signs in hand, employees took to Hackett Road on Thursday with chants of, “1, 2, 3, 4! We won’t take it anymore!” and “What do we want? Fair contract! When do we want it? Now!”
Between Thursday and Friday, hundreds of County employees and supporters showed up in support of the strike, but emotions about the protest were mixed.
“In one aspect, we’re standing up for the community so there’s elation, there’s pride and there’s joy,” Clark said. “In another aspect, there’s sadness, there’s misunderstanding as to the empathy of the Board of Supervisors and what they’re putting the community through.”
Based on calls received so far and discussions with her colleagues, Clark estimated that close to 400 community members could have already been affected by the strike in just two days as services were either closed or slowed by the lack of workers. Prior to the Nov. 5 strike, lapses in services occurred as hundreds of employees walked off the job.
According to Stanislaus County, there are nine departments that have employees represented by SEIU Local 521: Are Agency on Aging & Veterans Services, Community Services Agency, Department of Child Support Services, Behavioral Health & Recovery Services, Health Services Agency, Treasurer Tax Collector, Library, Sheriff’s Department and Animal Services.
The strike has left departments critically understaffed or without a staff at all, Clark said.
“Now, the County is beginning to put people who are on probation with no training into these critical positions,” she said. “It’s putting these peoples’ lives and families in jeopardy.”
In a statement, the County said it is aware of the strike.
“SEIU employees are valued employees and have been offered the same salary increases agreed to and voted upon by the vast majority of County employees,” the statement says. “Although we have been unable to come to a final negotiated agreement at this point, we continue to negotiate with SEIU in good faith and hope to come to resolution with SEIU in the future.”
It’s safe to say departments represented by SEIU Local 521 are suffering more than others in terms of staffing; for example, there is a 30 percent turnover rate within Child Support Services and a 14 percent vacancy rate of Child Welfare social workers. Additionally, 50 percent of the County’s total vacancies are in the Behavioral Health and Recovery department, which provides services to homeless, substance abusers, the severely mentally ill, children in school with mental health issues and the elderly.
As the strike has been labeled “indefinite” by SEIU Local 521, it will carry on until a contract is agreed upon by both parties. Clark said she is “absolutely certain” it will happen, though she doesn’t know when. In its statement, the County said more information would be forthcoming.
“It will happen, and it will be an agreement that the employees, the Board of Supervisors and the community can live with,” Clark said.