Curry County Administrator Clark Schroeder sent a letter to the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) Aug. 8 warning county employees to “think carefully about your decision to engage in a strike” after they voted last week to do so.

Unless one side or the other budges in any new negotiations, employees will strike Aug. 20.

A final meeting is set for 3 p.m. Sunday at the Courthouse Annex on Moore Street in Gold Beach.

Schroeder’s letter, which some said they viewed as a thinly veiled threat, points out to employees they can be replaced, and they won’t be eligible to receive paychecks, use accrued vacation time or health insurance while they’re on the picket line.

“We value you as an employee, and truly hope you do not walk away from your job, resulting in a loss of wages and benefits, such as health insurance, retirement and paid leaves,” Schroeder’s letter reads. “Striking employees are not entitled to unemployment insurance in Oregon.”

The employees — everyone but the sheriff, department heads and elected officials — are fighting for pay, health insurance and cost of living expenses they say would cost the county about $54,000.

Neither side has conceded much in the negotiations, although a “final offer” made by the county consisted of a one-time “bonus” of $1,000 to keep the existing contract intact until next year when negotiations begin again.

County Commissioner Sue Gold, in an interview with local radio, was adamant when she said the county doesn’t have the money to meet the employees’ demands and noted a permanent $1,000 increase would further exacerbate the county’s precarious financial status.

“She’s resolved to stick by her guns,” Schroeder said. “There was a brief period of time, we got the $1,000 bonus money, she was amenable toward that, but that was as far as she was willing to go.

“I kind of hate to bring everyone down here and nothing get resolved,” he said of Sunday’s meeting. “But there’s a process, and you have to follow the process.”

Gold also said in that interview that SEIU-member employees received a 7 percent overall increase in benefits last year — information the union posted on a bulletin board in the county annex, she presumed, to attract more employees into the organization.

That poster is no longer on the board.

“They acknowledge that they received increases in 2017,” said SEIU Communications Director Jill Bakken. “But it doesn’t change the fact that Curry County workers are the lowest paid in Oregon.”

The employees, however, have said the money the county is paying the attorney commissioners hired would pay for much of what they are asking. Bruce Bischof of Bend is representing the county in the negotiations. He could not be reached for comment this week.

Striking in Oregon

Public employees were first allowed to conduct collective bargaining in 1963, to organize and bargain with their employers regarding “employment relations,” including wages, salaries, hours, vacations, sick leave, holiday pay and grievance procedures, according to a state brief on collective bargaining.

The employer — in this case, Curry County — and the employees’ labor organization are required to meet and bargain with each other, and both parties are to participate in good faith negotiations for at least 150 calendar days before either party may unilaterally request a mediator, the state brief reads.

Curry County began this year’s negotiations in February.

Under the National Labor Relations Act (NRLA), both parties are equally obligated to negotiate, but neither is required to agree with the other, the brief reads.

The two parties are required to mediate for at least 15 days and, after that time is up, the two can continue or can declare an impasse in the negotiations.

Curry County declared an impasse Aug. 8 and made a final offer of a one-time $1,000 bonus to keep the existing contract in place until negotiations start again next year. The union, however, declined it, citing the taxes that would have to be paid on it.

Last Wednesday afternoon, the union members voted to strike.

What it means to them

Employees have said they don’t want to strike, but that the county leaves them no choice. And they will put a lot on the line in doing so.

Public employees striking for economic reasons — as opposed to those striking for unfair labor practices — cannot be fired, the brief reads. But they can be replaced while they’re on strike.

If the county were to seek replacements, those on strike are not entitled to immediate rehire. They can be notified when openings occur and, if they opt to return, it must be without conditions, the state brief reads.

Filling the positions will likely be difficult, the striking group has said, because their duties involve months of training. Many people won’t cross a picket line in sympathy with the workers, and others won’t work for the wages they are paid.

It’s hard enough to find people, county officials have stated numerous times over the years.

District Attorney Everett Dial has two deputy DA positions open in his office, has made two offers to candidates and both have turned him down, citing the county’s instability and low wages. Sheriff John Ward has the same problem keeping deputies. A few among those slated to strike have threatened to quit, as well.

The union has a strike hardship fund for those who strike, Bakken said. It pays each employee $225 per week and goes into effect only after seven days of striking.

“It’s not intended as a wage replacement,” Bakken said. “It’s to offset some of the costs of missed wages. It’s not going to make anyone’s mortgage, it’s not going to do much but keep groceries on the table or keep some lights on.”

She said “we can only hope” discussions go well Sunday.

“At the 11th hour people often come together,” Bakken said. But it’s always good to see workers come together and say we won’t be disrespected. People are going to suffer. The ones I’ve talked to say, ‘We’re taking a risk, but this will be an investment in our future.’

“They’re struggling,” Bakken said. “Like a lot of folks in Curry County, they’re trying to do the best they can by their families, but it’s a big risk.”