Wage negotiations between a group of Eureka City Schools employees and the district have reached an impasse, one that will prompt the arrival of a third-party mediator to forge a compromise between the two sides over how the employees’ next contract should look.
The district’s classified workers, made up of jobs from groundskeeping to food service to custodial work, are asking for a raise of roughly 14 percent in their next contract, while the district has made offers hovering closer to 6 percent for employees making under $14 an hour and 3 percent for those already making at least that amount.
Negotiations started in June but stalled in August. Adrian Dobson, the president of the local union chapter of the California School Employees Association, said he and others have taken issue with certain elements of the district’s offer. Other employed groups, like teachers, receive raises at similar rates, but those rates are proportional to their respective salaries, he said.
As a result, he said, fixed wages have the mathematical effect of widening the gap between the wealthiest and poorest workers in the district with each passing year.
“When I’ve explained the problem, they basically were like, ‘Whatever,’” he said. “They said, ‘That sucks, the pace of your wages are low, there’s nothing we can do about it.’”
Dobson clarified later he holds “sympathy” for the district, but systemic funding divides have inhibited the district from making the right decisions, he said.
Fred Van Vleck, the district superintendent, said the proposed wages are competitive with the county’s livable wage rates. During negotiations, Dobson pointed to other districts of similar size and economic status that pay their employees higher wages — a comparison Van Vleck called meaningless, since Eureka City Schools has 12 schools and can’t be compared to districts with many thousands of students, he said.
“We want to give as much money as we can possibly afford,” Van Vleck said. “I’ll just be really candid: 6 percent is well in excess state’s cost-of-living allowance, which is 2.13 percent.”
Here’s how the disagreements break down: the district initially offered classified employees a three-year contract with a 6 percent wage increase for employees making less than $14 an hour and a 3.8 percent raise for those making that amount or higher.
The raise would be set in stone for three years; after the initial raise, employees wouldn’t be able to renegotiate until their contracts were up.
The employees put forth a significantly different proposal: a 14.8 percent raise. A small handful of meetings later, the district has countered with a 2.71 percent raise for employees over the $14 baseline for year one and an additional 1 percent for the remaining two years.
Importantly, the district’s latest offer comes equipped with the opportunity to reopen negotiations after each of the three years associated with the contract.
Dobson took issue with the district calculating raises by taking percentages of salaries after benefits have been taken out. In its online postings, the district refers to “salaries-minus-benefits” as “compensation.” As Dobson contends, if benefits were added back in, the employees would receive higher raises.
Dobson also pointed to health care benefits themselves as a major factor of inequality in the mix. Since most groups pay the same amount for health care, he said, the board should adjust wages across the groups to accommodate.
But Van Vleck contends fixed costs like health care are simply an “unfortunate reality.”
“Some percentage of your budget goes out to pay for gasoline, rent, other fixed costs,” he said.“The reality of society is not everybody makes the same amount of money.”
When two groups arrive at an impasse in labor negotiations, a state-assigned mediator goes between the two to work out some kind of agreement between them.
If that fails, the two sides will arrange for a “fact-finding panel,” in which a member from each side and a third, neutral member will compile a report, which the school board will use to impose a decision on the employees.
If the union doesn’t agree with the board’s decision, only then can it go on strike. At the moment, Dobson said, the union isn’t considering a strike.
Both sides agree the district needs more external funding. Besides a few local and federal grants, the lion’s share of Eureka City Schools’ money comes from the state, Van Vleck said.
“It’s challenging to maintain a high level of funding,” he said. “Eighty-five percent of all our funding goes straight to people who work for us.”
Shomik Mukherjee can be reached at 707-441-0504.