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Workers get holiday eves off as thank-you

December 24, 2007|Catherine Saillant | Times Staff Writer

Government workers in Santa Barbara County can take full advantage of their last-minute holiday shopping this year, thanks to two extra paid days off that the Board of Supervisors quietly slipped into their stockings.

Without comment, supervisors earlier this month gave county government's 4,300 employees Christmas Eve and New Year's Eve off. Since both fall on a Monday preceding a Tuesday holiday, the action created consecutive four-day holiday weekends.

County leaders say it's a one-time deal and that it comes on the heels of hard-fought labor negotiations that resulted in favorable contracts for the county. Giving employees the extra time was a way of thanking them for concessions made in the agreements, said Michael Brown, the county's executive officer.

The county will maintain staffing for emergency services, including police and fire, and the clerk-recorder's office will provide limited services in some locations, he said.

"We had achieved many goals in a responsible way," said Brown, who recommended the days off. "We floated the idea to the board because this year's calendar is unique."

It is not unusual for public employees to get Friday off when Christmas and New Year's Day fall on a Saturday, human resources officials said. But adding an extra day off before a holiday appears to be uncommon, at least among Southern California's public agencies.

Santa Barbara County's action raised eyebrows, and envy levels, of other county government officials asked about the decision. Representatives of Los Angeles, Orange and Ventura counties said their workers would spend the two eves working as usual -- documenting real estate transfers, taking tax payments and prosecuting criminals.

"They got two extra days? Nice," said Judy Hammond, Los Angeles County public information officer. "I've been here since 1991 and we've never gotten either of those days off." L.A. County, she added, will be open for business both days.

The same goes for Orange County, said Jessica Jakary, a spokeswoman for the chief executive's office.

"That's nice for them, but we'll be here," Jakary said. "If our employees want to have those days off, they have to use vacation days."

Ventura County's top administrator was circumspect about Santa Barbara's justification for adding the days off. County Executive Officer Johnny Johnston, who has headed an 8,000-employee workforce for six years, said he knows how difficult labor negotiations can get.

Volume for public services does go down around the holidays, he said. But there will always be someone who waits until the last minute to file a document.

"In the euphoria of the moment, they declared a holiday," Johnston said. "But I'm kind of a Scrooge. We're not here to serve ourselves, but the public."

In a letter to the Santa Barbara County Board of Supervisors, Brown cited the low demand for services in the last two weeks of the year and said "granting these one-time holidays will not significantly inhibit the county's commitment to service delivery."

The days off, he wrote, were a good way to show "appreciation for the hard work of union leaders, and for the willingness of county employees to address financial concerns for the county."

New three-year contracts with much of the county's workforce include salary and benefit increases averaging 7%. The increases fell within the Board of Supervisors' targets, Brown said.

In addition, the unions agreed to hold off the largest increase until the final year of the contract, easing budget pressures for the coming year .

Andy Caldwell, head of the Coalition of Labor, Agriculture and Business, a citizens watchdog group, said he, too, was pleased with the outcome of the negotiations.

The county gained important concessions, making it easier to contract out some services and put on the table for future negotiations the possibility of switching from current guaranteed lifetime pensions to a 401(k)-type retirement package. In view of that, Caldwell said, the group decided not to complain too much about the days off.

Santa Barbara County workers get 11 holidays in a typical year, plus up to 25 vacation days if they have 14 years of service. Most employees also are allowed 12 sick days a year.

"Typically, we would have blasted the board on something like that," Caldwell said of the extra days. "But when we read the concessions they made, we bit half of our tongue."

Brown said it would cost the county $150,000 to cover extra pay for police officers and other emergency workers who will remain on the job.

But Caldwell said the truer cost is the county's payroll for two days, a figure he estimated at $1 million. He said he would have preferred that employees use vacation days to extend their holidays.

"It costs what they are paying them because they are not getting work for those days," he said.

catherine.saillant@latimes.com

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