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Union Chief Warns County Workers May Strike

Labor: Leader of employees' local says its 4,200 members might walk off their jobs if a new pact isn't approved by June.


Citing skyrocketing living costs and low wages, the leader of Ventura County's 4,200-member employees' union said Tuesday members may strike if they don't get a new contract by June.

"Our contract expires June 28, and we won't work beyond that date without a contract," said Barry Hammitt, president of the Service Employees International Union Local 998, which represents county employees ranging from librarians to psychiatrists to food workers.

The county is negotiating a new contract with the union.

Hammitt, accompanied to the weekly Board of Supervisors meeting by more than 100 union members, told the panel that workers need a raise of at least 10% to reach parity with other Southern California county employees.

While declining to speculate on what might be offered to county workers, Chief Administrative Officer Johnny Johnston said he wants to pay the wages and benefits necessary to attract and retain talented employees.

"I know we are behind, but how far behind I don't know," Johnston said. "There are a whole line of folks out there who want more. To the degree that we can pay a competitive wage, we will."

Hammitt said high living costs in Ventura County make it hard to fill many county positions. For instance, he said, mental health workers are increasingly hard to find, and there has been a high turnover in building inspectors.

"They are going to cities like Ventura and Thousand Oaks, where they can get a company car and make more money," Hammitt said.

He also said Ventura County librarians make $36,638, the lowest salary in Southern California. Orange County librarians make $50,336 and those in Los Angeles County make $46,018, he said.

Supervisor Frank Schillo said Hammitt should save his rhetoric for the bargaining table.

"I have sympathy to the extent that we offered parity to other unions," Schillo said. "We did it with the firefighters and Sheriff's Department because we were losing people."

But Schillo said he isn't sure if it's fair to compare other counties to Ventura.

One manager agreed Tuesday that higher wages are needed to retain employees.

Jack Phillips, the county's chief building inspector, said his department has experienced a 100% turnover in the past two years.

He said most of those building inspectors left for Simi Valley, Thousand Oaks and Ventura, and one moved to Chico in Northern California because of cheaper housing.

"They virtually all went for more pay," Phillips said. "We had a guy go to Los Angeles for a 37% pay increase to do the same job, with a 10% [additional] raise in the first year. Others have received a 15% raise to work in the city of Ventura."

The county's entry-level building inspectors make $30,000 to $43,000, he said.

The shortage also extends to mental health workers, a Department of Behavioral Health employee said.

"There is a whole new category called 'difficult-to-recruit positions,' " said Scott Vanderzee, a psychiatric social worker and union member. "Those positions include pharmacists, social workers, psychologists and mental health workers."

Hammitt said reaching parity with other counties is the first step.

"The county needs to commit itself to paying wages that are above average," he said.

Hammitt said he hopes strikes are not necessary.

"But my marching orders are to get bodies geared up to exercise what options are available," he said. "I think we have won the supervisors' hearts. Now we have to win their minds."

Meanwhile, the union is launching a radio and television campaign today to illustrate the work its members perform, their importance and why the union believes they deserve a higher salary.

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