About 30 courthouse workers walked an informational picket line outside the Santa Maria Courthouse on Thursday — boycotting an appreciation luncheon held in their honor by the North County judges — expressing anger and concern they haven’t had a pay increase in six years. A similar action is scheduled by Santa Barbara courthouse workers this Monday.
According to union organizer Mike Woods of Service Employees International Local 620, Santa Barbara County’s 145 courthouse workers — clerks, reporters, collection agents, legal processors, and information technicians — are paid on average 5 percent less than their counterparts from five counties with comparable populations and caseload volumes. In some instances, he said, the disparity is much greater.
Court clerks — who function as right and left hands for the judges on the Santa Barbara bench — make 11 percent less than their counterparts. The top salary a court clerk can make is $47,000, and several in Santa Barbara work second jobs. One noted that the amount she earns working evenings and weekends is the equivalent of that 11 percent differential.
According to Woods, the union is demanding a 7 percent pay increase to be spread over an indeterminate number of years. “This would bring them to the same point they’d be if they’d gotten a one percent pay increase over the past six years,” he said. (He said they received a $1,400 one-time payout last year, which after taxes functioned as an $800 bonus.) Woods said management has offered a $250 one-time payout for this year, plus a one percent pay increase for next year. The last contract between the Superior Court and its workers expired October 31. Five negotiation sessions have taken place since August.
Although courthouse workers walked informational picket lines two years ago, this year’s action has more bite and urgency. In both demonstrations this week, the workers chose to boycott the annual Christmas luncheon paid for by the local judges. “Who boycotts Christmas?” demanded Darrel Parker, executive court administrator. Such lunches typically include cold cut sandwiches purchased by the judges, complimented by side dishes prepared by the employees.
Parker said he could not comment on the specifics of contract negotiations, but he did acknowledge courthouse workers have been asked to do much more in recent years with fewer people. In the past two years, 47 courthouse employees have left under intense budgetary constraints, many opting for the early retirement bonuses offered. This past week, Parker said he laid off 15 temporary employees. “I’m running a deficit of $735,000 between what it costs to run this court and how much money I have to run it,” he said. “One out of every four authorized courthouse positions are vacant — 26 percent!”
Parker disputed union claims that some management workers had received pay raises as “misinformed at best or outright lies at worst.” He himself received a pay increase, he acknowledged, when he was promoted from assistant administrator to executive administrator. But he added that he operates without any of the administrative and secretarial support staff his predecessor had. “It’s just me,” he said.
The courts are no longer funded by the County of Santa Barbara but through the California Legislature, which allocates to each county’s court administrator a lump sum budget. During the recession, the courts experienced draconian cuts that the Legislature is only now beginning to redress. It did not help any, added union organizer Woods, that the state Judiciary Council “blew” half a billion on a new computer system that would have enabled better communications between different court systems but was abandoned after it didn’t work.
SEIU, Woods said, has been lobbying in Sacramento on behalf of its members. He acknowledged that Parker is in a tough financial jam, but he cautioned there’s only so far the workload of courthouse employees can be stretched without serious ramifications. “In some jobs if you make a mistake, it’s not that big a deal. But here, we’re talking jobs where someone could wind up behind bars for a year longer than their sentence called for.”
Parker expressed disappointment that the Christmas lunches would be the subject of this year’s boycotts. “I understand information pickets, but I’m confused by this event,” he said. “The lunch is an event to honor the employees.” He said he was especially perplexed because he thought negotiations, though not yet fruitful, had been “positive.” He did acknowledge, however, that heavy workloads had taken a toll on morale. “People here have struggled without any pay increases, having to do the work of people who used to sit next to them,” he said. “That’s a challenge.”