Riverside County, unions in contract talks amid budget challenges


With Riverside County’s budget challenges as a backdrop, county officials are negotiating with several public employee unions over contracts that have expired or are set to expire soon, although no deals appear imminent.

Contracts with the Riverside Sheriffs’ Associations Law Enforcement Unit and Laborers’ International Union of North America Local 777 expired June 30. The deal with Service Employees International Union Local 721 ends Nov. 30.

Collectively, the unions represent almost 17,000 county employees across various departments. The majority of county employees are unionized.

Relations between county government and its unions became strained in 2012, when the county sought union consent to control escalating pension costs.

The county declared an impasse and imposed pay and benefits changes on employees, prompting SEIU to hold a one-day strike in which more than 1,000 purple-clad employees picketed the County Administrative Center to demand the county return to the bargaining table.

Eventually, unions signed off on multiyear pacts that gave employees raises in exchange for members paying more toward their retirement and a lower tier of pension benefits for new hires.

Officials have said that the resulting higher labor costs contributed to the county’s current budget crunch, in which rising expenses are outpacing the growth in revenue.

To veer from what officials have described as an unsustainable path – this fiscal year’s budget began with a $60.9 million deficit – supervisors are following a five-year plan that keeps discretionary spending flat while building up reserves. Central to that plan is keeping labor costs level.

County spokesman Ray Smith said the county can’t continue to plug shortfalls with reserves.

“Further cuts to general government departments that have been reduced dramatically since the recession could damage some services to residents, and still not generate enough savings to close the deficit,” he said. “So, rather than simply slashing departments, the county is looking for efficiencies with help from (consulting firm) KPMG.”

“The executive office and members of the (Board of Supervisors) have said publicly that expenditures must remain flat for at least several years,” Smith added. “Salaries and benefits for employees have been more than equitable over the years.”

“I cannot discuss the confidential negotiations but as they continue, county officials hope employees recognize the effects of current fiscal issues, and that agreements can be reached with labor groups.”

Earlier this year, the county reached a two-year deal with the union representing deputy district attorneys. While there are no across-the-board cost-of-living raises, two-step merit increases consistent with the previous contract remain in effect.

In addition, union members can sell back to the county up to 80 hours of unused leave per calendar year. The previous cap was 40 hours a year.