Community Solutions workers prepare for strike on Feb. 11

SEIU Union representative Tasha Cherry leads the chants as

Morgan Hill
– Union employees of local human services agency Community
Solutions authorized a strike if continuing negotiations with
agency management fall apart, according to union spokesman Andrew
Hagelshaw. The strike would begin Feb. 11.
Morgan Hill – Union employees of local human services agency Community Solutions authorized a strike if continuing negotiations with agency management fall apart, according to union spokesman Andrew Hagelshaw. The strike would begin Feb. 11.

The decision was reached Monday after an hour-long union employee rally outside one of the agency’s three offices in Morgan Hill. Community Solutions also has an office in Gilroy.

Union spokesman Andrew Hagelshaw said the biggest point of contention is the agency’s proposal of a system where employees would not receive health care coverage for spouses and dependents. Currently, Community Solutions provides complete coverage for employees, spouses and dependents, with no limit on the number of dependents.

Additionally, Hagelshaw said, management is offering no wage increases for 2005 and 2006, with the first proposal to re-open wage negotiations in 2007. Union employees’ annual salaries range from $25,000 to $45,000, the lowest paid for janitors and maintenance workers and the highest paid for counselors and therapists. The salaries of all other positions, including case managers, administrative support and program coordinators, range between $35,000 and $40,000.

Lastly is the issue of seniority. Management wants to be able to lay off employees by seniority only if their skills, qualifications and abilities are equal, Hagelshaw said, so a veteran employee could be laid off before a recent hire who has more education, even if the education is not a requirement for the job.

Erin O’Brien, CEO of Community Solutions, said the reality of the economic climate has forced the agency to look at cutting costs, and the agency wants to keep communication with its employees open and honest.

“We really value our staff, and we firmly believe our mission applies to our employees just as it does to our clients,” she said. “I’m regretful the process is as divisive as it is.”

The most recent contract between union employees, represented by Service Employees International Union Local 715, and agency management was negotiated in October 2003 and expired Monday yesterday. This is the first time in Community Solutions’ roughly 30-year history that union employees have given notice to strike, O’Brien said.

“If we can’t take care of our families, we can’t take care of the community, and that’s what we’re here to do,” said Kathy Lawrence, a Gilroy resident and Community Solutions administrative assistant. “That’s what we want to do. We don’t want to go on strike. But if we can’t take care of our families, I don’t know how management can expect us to keep taking care of the community.”

Negotiations began Dec. 13, broke for the holidays and resumed Jan. 10. Negotiators have been meeting twice a week and held meetings through the weekend that stretched to 1am Monday, said Linda Jordan, Community Solutions chief operating officer and lead negotiator for agency management.

Jordan said management has been forthcoming with union employees regarding the agency’s budget, which has become especially tight over the past three years due to deep funding cuts from Santa Clara County. The county has guaranteed a $700,000 cut for 2005-06, Jordan said. The agency has an annual budget of $7 million and receives state and federal funding, as well as private donations.

“We’ve been very creative over the past few years so we didn’t have to implement layoffs,” Jordan said. “Now we’re getting to the point of not just containing costs, but cutting costs.”

Community Solutions pays an average of $9,000 per year per employee in health coverage, Jordan said. The agency last year absorbed an 80-percent increase in insurance costs from Kaiser and a 42-percent increase from Blue Cross and Blue Shield, both for the same levels of coverage.

But like many union employees, Lawrence said it’s simply unfair to make workers pay out-of-pocket costs for coverage for their spouses and children. Several union employees are single mothers with two or three children, Lawrence said, adding that her husband has a heart condition and no other way to pay for coverage. To top it off, employees have not received raises equivalent with cost-of-living increases for five years, Lawrence said.

“We understand there are financial problems. But these same tactics have been used for the past five or six years, and the employees have had enough,” she said.

Negotiators met through late yesterday afternoon after the conclusion of the rally. Jordan could not provide an immediate estimate of how a strike would impact the agency’s budget. O’Brien said there is a comprehensive strike plan in place to maintain the agency’s vital services.

Hagelshaw said the agency management’s Jan. 21 proposal came as too little, too late.

“The workers have been feeling the urgency of this for quite some time,” he said. “But management didn’t hand out a proposal until 10 days before the contract expired.”

The recent negotiations did, however, result in several agreements such as slight pay increases for bilingual and on-call workers, eligibility for education leave and tuition reimbursement and issues relating to discipline and discharge. When negotiated, the new contract will be valid through October 2007.

What is Community Solutions?

• Provides behavioral health care, prevention and education, counseling and domestic violence and rape crisis services to communities in South Santa Clara County, and some services to San Benito County

• Three offices in Morgan Hill, one in Gilroy

• 86 full-time, union employees

• 15 management employees

• 31 hourly employees

• Receives local, state and federal funding as well as contributions from private foundations and individual donors