A tentative truce has been forged between Curry County Commissioners and their departmental employees, likely averting a strike they’d intended to start Monday.
Under the agreement crafted between the board and the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), the 17 county employees will receive a 2.13 percent cost-of-living increase retroactive to July 1, and the county will increase by a $100 a month its contribution to each of their health plans.
The employees include those in the assessors, clerk, finance, building and planning and facilities maintenance departments. A strike would have left department heads or elected officials to do all their work in their absence.
According to the state Employee Relations Board website, to which both parties must file negotiation updates, the union originally asked for a salary increase of 3 percent, $100 more a month for health insurance premiums and, for those eligible for a “step” increase — a pay increase going to the next step in the salary range — to receive two half-steps instead.
The county, in paperwork filed with the state Employment Relations Board Aug. 8, responded “no increases.”
Two days later, however, the board offered the employees a $1,000, one-time “bonus” to keep the existing contract intact until the next round of negotiations next year; the union turned the offer down and filed with the state their intent to strike.
SEIU representatives said “hundreds” of phone calls came into the county commissioner’s office this past week in support of the employees.
“This tentative agreement moves the county forward with dignity and respect,” the union wrote in an email announcing the agreement. “It was only possible through the unshakeable unity of SEIU 503 members in Curry County and the widespread support they received.”
Change of heart
The employees, union representatives and commissioners had one last round of negotiations scheduled for Sunday afternoon.
But Wednesday, the board went into executive session to determine if either Commissioners Tom Huxley or Sue Gold was willing to concede to any of the demands of the employees. According to Commissioner Court Boice, who has supported the SEIU workers since negotiations began in February, the other two have fought on behalf of the county’s financial interests.
He said at a different meeting Thursday that he “pushed Gold in executive session as far as she could be pushed, and I think I can say we’re 90 percent sure there won’t be a strike.”
Gold said in an interview posted on social media earlier this week the county doesn’t have the money to comply with the demands of the employees.
“County workers have been struggling to make ends meet, with many of them picking up second jobs just to keep food on the table,” said Bob Hopkinson, communications organizer for the union. “Nine years of pay freezes plus inflation had left the wages of Curry County employees more than 13 percent behind where they were in 2008.
“Workers simply could not afford to allow their pay to be frozen another year, and in mid-July, Curry County employees voted overwhelmingly to strike,” he continued. “Just two working days before the strike began, the county came back to the table with an eleventh-hour proposal for a fair contract with Curry County workers.”
All involved — county department heads, elected officials, union representatives and the affected employees — said they didn’t want a strike.
“Though we made some concessions at the bargaining table, we were happy to negotiate to a place that works best for both us and the county,” said Union President Anthony Pagano, who works as an assessor. “We believe this is a fair agreement that moves the county forward and puts us in a good place to enter into negotiations next year.”
Hopkinson said residents and business owners have supported workers numerous times in the past, citing the need for fair treatment of public workers and the potential negative outcomes of a county worker strike.
Curry County workers plan to return to work Monday.
Reach Jane Stebbins at firstname.lastname@example.org .