With their union contract expiring at midnight February 28th, a large crowd of county employees rallied outside the board of supervisors chamber Tuesday afternoon, pushing for an improved contract.
"We are the union," County workers chanted. "The mighty mighty union."
Staffing shortages, benefit cuts, increased retirement costs. County employees said they're fed up with ever more challenging working conditions that they said are hurting everything from checkbooks to health.
"I've become 11% handicap because of this job," Ross Weber said. "You know, with my back, it's hard on you. Staffing levels are low. When I started with the road department 23 years ago, there was, you know, 156 or so employees. Now we're down at least half."
Weber is a Sonoma County roads maintenance worker and a member of SEIU Local 1021 union.
He said roads crews are squeezed by both low staffing and extreme weather conditions.
"When you have a total of ten guys in a yard to take care of 330 miles, but you gotta pick and choose," Weber said. "Are you going to take care of the tree that's down? Are you going to cut the brush? Are you going to go pothole?"
"We're just constantly chasing our tail," Weber said. "You know, it's horrible to be out there and to catch the flack from the public all the time about how we're fixing a road because the County doesn't want to pay to do it the right way."
Jana Blunt, president of the 2300 member Sonoma County Chapter of SEIU 1021, said staffing is far below where it should be given the community’s need.
"This entire contract campaign is about recruitment and retention, and that's what the county also states their primary objective is," Blunt said. "But what they're bringing to the table is not reflecting that."
"We've got upwards of 20% vacancies in many departments," Blunt said. "When you can't hire child protective services, social workers, or psychiatric nurses, because if they work across the street at the VA, they make $30,000 more per year. We have vulnerable public who are suffering. It's not just about us."
She said morale is low.
"It's about the services that we provide," Blunt said. "How can we take pride in what we do when we can't even perform the work that we're supposed to be doing? And so that's why we're fighting. That's why we're out here in the rain."
"Working at the county has never been luxury wages," Blunt said. "You know, we take a pay cut to work here, hopefully for benefits on a long-term basis."
While county administrative staff are the lead negotiators on the contract, the Board of Supervisors ultimately gives final approval on any new contract.
Blunt said she has a message for them.
"We're so close," Blunt said. "We want to avoid a strike. We want to avoid anything extreme, but our contract expires at midnight tonight, and we're going to do whatever it takes in order to ensure that we can get recruitment and retention back to where it needs to be at the county. We can't afford anything else."