Thousands of Ventura County employees returned to work after an eight-day strike despite not having a contract but with hopes that their demands for better retirement benefits would be met.
At the same time, residents who had stayed away from the county Government Center because of picketers ventured back to county offices for building permits, counseling and other services.
For the last week, the county's Hall of Administration had been a virtual ghost town, save for the occasional stampede of picketers waving signs and chanting. But with negotiators for the county and the Services Employees International Union, Local 998--which represents 4,200 county workers--back at the bargaining table, officials were hopeful that business would return to normal.
"It's nice to go into the county center and hear a hum of activity," said Supervisor John Flynn. "Everyone is pleased that it's over. I hope it will be over. I think it is."
Several residents seeking county services Thursday said the strike had caused some inconvenience, but they had not minded putting off their business a few days. "I wouldn't cross these fellows' picket line," said Ojai resident Martin Fry, a retired Teamster who waited several days before applying for a roofing permit. "I like to support working people."
Others said they had hardly paid attention to the strike at all. "To be honest I have no idea what it was even about," said Adam Zane, 32, who owns an advertising firm and a home in Camarillo. He needed a permit to build a trellis on his patio; if not for that project, he said, "I never would have known" about the strike.
But for some, it was a sore subject.
Ventura resident Patrick Sullivan said social workers had walked off the job on the day they were scheduled to investigate his concern that his children may have been harmed by someone.
"It made me feel the money they were asking for was more important than the kids," he said, standing outside a Human Services Agency center in Ventura on Thursday.
"I still don't feel they're working in the best interests of the children. I feel they're disgruntled and here because they have to be."
Marilu Andreoni-DeVine, a child abuse investigator, said she was relieved to be back at work and had been thinking about the 30 families in her regular caseload each day she was out. She had 19 messages waiting Thursday, but no emergencies. "I'm trying to catch up," she said.
Planner Steve Wood said he was glad to return to work, but many of his colleagues are skeptical that the county will reward them in the end.
Union chief Barry Hammitt said the new round of contract talks, which began Tuesday afternoon, have been productive. In addition to an average 10% salary increase over the next three years, workers want their pensions to be adjusted annually for inflation.
Union and county officials agreed to meet next Wednesday to finalize plans to hire a consultant to conduct a financial review that would determine what sort of pension increases the county can afford.
Before the strike, the county had tentatively agreed to $20 million in raises for workers. Talks broke down when the county refused to guarantee that it would provide workers hired since 1979 with cost-of-living adjustments to their pensions. County officials said it would take months of study before they could consider a plan that could cost $108 million upfront and millions more each year. The union said it didn't trust the county enough to wait that long without a solid commitment.