Over two-thirds of the City of South Pasadena’s 74 part-time employees will complete their third week without pay Friday with no word on when or if their jobs will return. Formerly grossing an average of less than $250/week, the lucky ones are already on unemployment, getting as little as $140/week and hitting technical barriers or unanswered calls when trying to access federal benefits under the CARES Act.
The employees, whose jobs were mostly at the library and city recreational facilities, are the first city staffers to suffer adverse financial impacts due to the COVID-19 pandemic. They are keenly aware of this as is their union, the South Pasadena Public Service Part Time Employees’ Association.
While the jobs were cut to comply with closures required under county health department orders, the city has been ramping up efforts to mitigate millions of dollars in projected revenue losses from reduced sales tax and fees. The city told the union furloughing the part timers saves it $26,000 every two weeks.
“Most cities would start at the top and work their way down” said California Labor Advisor’s Sheri Stevenson, the part-timer’s union attorney. “To start trying to make up the money they lost on the backs of the poorest part time employees just seem very unfair. This is the type of situation in which there should be a shared sacrifice.” The city manager and a dozen other executives in Oxnard took pay cuts totaling over $150,000, she noted. The city manager in Santa Monica offered to take a 20 percent pay cut and city council members in Concord, California agreed to cut their own salaries as well as city managers’.
The part timers’ odyssey actually began March 20 when 52 of them were sent home for what the city thought would be three weeks. Technically “on-call,” a few were summoned to perform odd jobs or remote actions for which they were paid “average hours” that worked out to something slightly less than their normal pay. Most of the affected employees normally work 18 hours a week.
But on the evening of Friday April 24, City Manger Stephanie DeWolfe sent emails telling them they were being furloughed as of Monday the 27th — less than 72 hours — and would receive no further assignments or compensation. Because of the uncertainty surrounding the pandemic, the length of the furlough was “likewise uncertain,” she wrote. Updates would be forthcoming but so far, none have.
The following Monday part timer’s union President Sierra Betinis — who worked at the still open senior center — got the same email. Stevenson said it was unclear why the union president’s notice was sent separate from and after all the others. That and the fact that all the union’s other governing officers were among those furloughed led Stevenson to ask the city if it was trying to bust the union. No, she was told.
The union got the city’s agreement not to challenge any unemployment claims filed by the furloughed workers, who do not receive medical, dental or retirement benefits.
Although passing references to the furlough have appeared in budget presentations the city has released over in recent days, there was no public announcement of the move. It was neither mentioned during any of the public meetings the City Council has held since March 20 nor brought to the attention of the Finance Commission during its special meeting on April 22 — the same day the city notified union leadership of its plans.
The part timers are six months into a four-year contract, having received a raise in January with another coming next January. Being furloughed is better than being laid off, Stevenson concedes, since the city can call them back without going through a rehiring process. But employees have already been locked out of their email accounts, and with a 100 percent furlough and no return date, “it sounds like a lay off.” Some will have to started looking for other work, she added.
No negotiations are currently under way with the part timers, but in a note on its closed agenda, the city reported Council has been consulting with its labor negotiators “regarding labor negotiations” with all five of its management and employee associations. Any layoff proposal would have to be preceded with a “meet and confer” to allow the unions time to negotiate the impacts, Stevenson said.
In an email Thursday, assistant to the city manager Lisa Demirjian told the South Pasadenan News “the City is currently reviewing several alternatives” to address the estimated $3.5 million budget shortfall through June 2021. “No decisions have been made yet with regard to any city personnel.”
A representative of the city’s full time employee union declined to comment.
“We’re upset with South Pasadena but to be fair, they are not the only city” being forced to confront labor issues due to the pandemic, Stevenson noted. The same thing is happening in cities throughout the state and country.
The California League of Cities recently told the legislature cities statewide are estimating $6.7 billion in revenue losses through fiscal 2021-22. It said with absent support from the federal government, 9 of every 10 California cities will be forced to furlough or lay off staff.