Merced County Falls Short

Merced County Falls Short

(Editor’s note: The following article is printed with the permission of the Central Valley Journalism Collaborative, a nonprofit newsroom based in Merced.)

During its last meeting of the year, the Merced County Board of Supervisors (BOS) honored veteran employees in the stately historic Merced Courthouse Museum, surrounded by Christmas trees adorned with twinkling lights and garlands topped with red bows.

A few minutes later, during public comment, family services representative Marta Echevarria said she declined being honored during the ceremony for her 20 years of service to the county.

“I chose not to receive it because I don’t need an award to know that I am an asset to the agency that I work for,” she said. “I’m an excellent worker with my clients, but they are all suffering because I have not been able to do my work because of the lack of staff support. 

“We are missing so many workers in our agency because they are leaving your county to go to work somewhere else. We are trying to pick up that slack, and it is near to impossible,” she told the supervisors.

Echevarria was one of many Merced County employees across departments who addressed the board, expressing frustration over low pay, rising healthcare costs and staffing shortages as their colleagues leave for better jobs nearby.

“We are in need of workers, and we cannot retain the workers with the pay that we are receiving and the high (healthcare) premiums that we’re going to be paying starting in January,” Echevarria said.

“I let you guys know that as of next month, I may be homeless…Appreciating me, or giving me an award for working 20 years for Merced County to be homeless is not an appreciation. It’s not an award that I see fitting for somebody who works very hard for you and who works very hard for their clients.”

The supervisors approved two items to provide some relief. The board unanimously passed a temporary 10% healthcare cap adjustment for all employees beginning in January, when the premium increase takes effect, as well as an 8% wage increase for sheriff’s sergeants.

Still, employees who spoke during public comment at the board meeting said the adjusted healthcare cap will amount to $20 savings for some—not enough to make a meaningful difference. Meanwhile, bargaining units representing sheriff’s deputies and dispatchers rejected the 8% wage increase proposal accepted by the sergeants.

Board Chair Scott Silveira addressed the employees by pointing to the county’s budget and the current economic environment. Silveira—known for his mantra “Merced County is healthy, not wealthy”—stopped short of saying the county is unhealthy, but he did express concern.

“I’m concerned for our county. I’m concerned for our residents because they’re feeling the pinch every day, and the services that we provide them are getting tighter and tighter,” he said.

More than 2,200 people work for Merced County, one of the region’s largest employers, according to its website. County staff serve about 290,000 residents living in six different cities and almost a dozen unincorporated communities.

The meeting marked the first action the BOS has taken since employees began speaking out. 

County employees in October began protesting the looming 12% increase in healthcare premiums and continue to speak during public comment at every BOS meeting. At the same time, Sheriff Vern Warnke and his employees since summer have pleaded with the supervisors to act so the department stops hemorrhaging employees.

The supervisors reassured employees they do care about their complaints and want to help, but they said they must consider a likely economic downturn, signaled by the county’s stagnant sales tax.

“I’m more worried about furloughs and layoffs in the future, and we’re sitting here arguing over raises and increases for healthcare,” Supervisor Daron McDaniel said from the dais.

Sheriff Says Current Raises Not Enough

Silveira opened his remarks about the sheriff’s employee wage proposals by saying the supervisors have demonstrated strong support for public safety. The challenges facing the Sheriff’s Office are consistent with the current national trend, he said.

The board heard the pleas for help from the sheriff and his employees, Silveira said, and that’s why the board offered raises six months before the county was obligated to negotiate new labor contracts.

The board appreciated the sergeant’s unit accepting the raise and was disappointed by the rejections from the other units, Silveira said.

“We stepped up to help them fight the recruitment and retention challenges they often highlight with the financial resources currently available to us,” he said.

“They elected to not accept a sizable raise and healthcare cap increases, which only makes their challenges more challenging, and is counter to their stated narrative.”

The next opportunity for deputies and dispatchers to negotiate a raise won’t come until June, Silveira said, as the units did not counter the county’s proposal.

Warnke said 8% wasn’t enough and that all his employees need a 15% raise, at least. He also said the county’s proposals came with “strings attached” because they required a two-year contract term. The sergeants unit negotiated for a one-year term, which the board accepted.

“When they put the strings attached, the county proved that the employees don’t matter to them,” Warnke said. “If the employees mattered—I’m talking to all employees, not just mine—they would really rethink this.”

Healthcare and Staffing in Other Departments

Earlier this year, the county learned their health plan rate is set to increase by 12% starting in January.

County supervisors approved a temporary increase to the amount the county contributes to healthcare premiums.

In 2017, the county and labor groups negotiated maximum county contributions both for employee and dependent premiums. Any amount over the maximum contribution is paid by the employee.

The item approved by the board increases the maximum county contribution by 10% for employees and dependents until bargaining for successor MOUs can begin in March.

County workers who have protested the increase said it exacerbated the existing issue of stagnant pay.

At the meeting, a paralegal who works in the District Attorney’s Office added her name to the list of county employees who said her department is losing coworkers to neighboring Stanislaus County for better pay.

Amanda Metz pointed to Merced Mayor Matt Serratto as an example of talent the county lost. Serratto recently took a new job working for the Stanislaus County District Attorney’s Office after working as District Attorney Nicole Silveira’s chief deputy DA.

“I myself take the bar in February, and if things don’t improve, I probably won’t be practicing in Merced County either,” Metz told the board.

Supervisor Rodrigo Espinosa thanked the employees who spoke, acknowledging it’s not easy to publicly ask for raises. 

“It’s so disheartening to listen to the comments, but I understand your comments,” he said. “I’m with you.”

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