Lassen County workers go on half-day strike to protest impasse
The Oct. 19 strike was called by the United Public Employees of California, Local 792, which, according to UPEC labor representative Mike Lyon, represents four bargaining units of county employees — the general unit, mid-managers, road workers and the deputy sheriff/peace officers association.
Lyon noted all the law enforcement officers were working their shifts and were not participating in the job action.
John Ketelsen, Lassen County’s chief administrative officer, said he would not comment on the merits of the dispute.
“We’re impressed with how properly things have gone,” Ketelsen said, “but we will not respond to the verbal claims that are being made. We’ve been involved in very cordial negotiations since May regarding issues surrounding pay and the cost of health care. We’re still pretty far apart, and the units have claimed an impasse, which is their right. Next comes mediation — which is voluntary on both sides — and we’ve accepted that.”
Ketelsen said he hoped to get all the units included in the mediation, which he expects to begin the end of October or early in November.
“Mediation is kind of like shuttle diplomacy,” Ketelsen said. “The mediator talks to both sides and tries to find solutions we may not have thought of.”
Ketelsen said some employees who could have taken part in the action chose to come to work instead.
According to a flyer passed out by the strikers, identified as the Employee Associations and Unions of Lassen County, the issues are:
•The last four years health insurance increases have been greater than employee pay increases;
•Dependent health coverage is unaffordable at more than $500 per month to be paid by the employee;
•Some employees are paid so poorly, they have uninsured children because they have no choice;
•Some employees qualify for the very social programs they administer;
•Salary increases have been less than the rate of inflation; and,
•Many qualified employees can no longer afford to work and live in Lassen County.
“The county employees are taking time off without pay to do community service,” Lyon said of the group collecting food for the needy during a Main Street picket. “It’s about pay and insurance, those are the main issues.”
Lassen County worker Nicole Johnsen, a member of the general unit employed at Lassen Works, explained why she was talking part in the job action. She can’t afford to pay for insurance for her three children and her husband.
“I can only afford health insurance for myself,” Johnsen said. “I can’t afford it for my family.”
She said many county employees work more than one job to provide for their families, and some work at the county just to get the benefits.
“Some people are working just for the benefits,” Johnsen said, “because the majority of their paycheck goes to insurance. Others, like me, have opted not to put their family members on the insurance because the cost is too great, especially for those in lower paying jobs.”
To make ends meet, Johnsen said her husband works a full-time job and then goes out on weekends to cut wood to sell to make a little extra money.
“It’s hard because he’s gone all the time because he’s doing side work,” Johnsen said. “I’ve thought about taking another job after work myself. Most of my paycheck goes to childcare, so I’m basically working for the insurance. The worst-case scenario is for the single parents who are trying to work and provide for their families. It’s really tough for them.”
Mike Allen, another striking employee, said, “We’re all here together to protest the lack of progress in negotiations with the county. This is a job action. It’s a strike. We want the people of Lassen County to know we’re not upset with the public — that’s why we’re doing community service through the canned food drive. We’re upset with the board of supervisors, but not the citizens. We’re hoping the board of supervisors will see the employees are united and give us a better offer. Right now they’re not even offering enough to cover the increase in the cost of health insurance, so essentially they’re offering us a pay cut.”
Terry Chapman, who works in the mental health division, was on the picket line.
“If we took the supervisors’ offer, I’d take a $35 a month cut in pay,” Chapman said.
Lyon said he’d read several stories in the Lassen County Times about how the county was in much better financial shape than the city.
But he said the union, which represents the Susanville Police Department, had a much easier time dealing with the city than with the county.
“It was a lot easier negotiating process with the city,” Lyon said. “It was easier for us to get something for the employees. We got them a raise and took care of health insurance. What the county is offering as a pay increase is less the increase in the cost of health insurance, so the employees will be taking a pay cut.”
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