Members of SEIU Local 521 showed up to the Feb. 12 City Council meeting and expressed concerns about the high turnover rate they experienced within the union. Photo by Lluvia Moreno.

The rising cost of living has impacted almost every sector of Santa Cruz’s community. From mom and pop shops to the city’s students, the housing crisis is difficult to manage. This month, members of the Service Employees International Union Local (SEIU) 521 will confront City Council about an increase in pay and a cost of living adjustment. 

“It [is] very difficult for the average employee here in our community,” said union negotiator Neil Christen.” We’re just a small part of a bigger issue.”

SEIU 521 is a 475-member union that provides essential services to the community including flood control, waste management, water maintenance and emergency infrastructure repair. 

SEIU entered contract negotiations with the city in March. The group usually negotiates its contract every three years. In this negotiation SEIU is asking for a pay raise to offset the rising housing costs in the area that would be a significantly larger increase than they generally receive. 

Lisa Murphy, a negotiator for the city, remains hopeful a contract will be finalized before SEIU’s contract expires on March 22. 

“We have good faith understanding and good relationships,” said Murphy. “We both have a mutual goal of increasing employees’ salaries and trying to get to a point where people can afford to live here in Santa Cruz.”

With low pay and a high cost of living, Santa Cruz city employees have a high turnover rate. Some workers are concerned this will leave the city underprepared in case of an earthquake or other emergency because new employees lack institutional knowledge and older employees are unable to be as physically active.

“Everybody will be hiring when there’s a problem. And they’ll need people with skills,” said city Water Department employee Michael Daly. “[City employees] are going to be the ones holding the bag trying to rebuild the city.” 

Members of SEIU Local 521 showed up to the Feb. 12 City Council meeting and expressed concerns about the high turnover rate they experienced within the union. Photo by Lluvia Moreno.

Despite this optimism, Murphy said the city is limited by budget restraints. The financial recession of 2008 and bad investments from the post-employee retirement benefits fund have impacted the city’s funds and benefit options for employees. During the 2008 recession, many city employees took a pay cut and reduction in benefits, and salaries have been slow to recover. 

“The city asked workers to give up a lot in concessions and the workers openly gave. We gave up some benefits, we gave some pay, we went on furlough,” Christen said. “And so now we’re put in a position where we’re having to negotiate to get things back that we previously had before. […] That leaves a bad taste in a lot a lot employees’ mouths.” 

Workers’ frustrations are exacerbated by tensions arising from pay disparities between Santa Cruz and surrounding cities. Other municipalities offer greater pay for employees with the same experience and training. The city operates using a pay scale, meaning that after a certain number of years, you can move up on the scale and make a larger salary. At the first step in the pay scale, Santa Cruz SEIU employees make 49 percent less than counterparts in Livermore. 

About 90 percent of union members indicated they do not have enough money to stay in the city and 34 percent of members have to work an additional job, according to SEIU.

“I work a second job. […] And that’s the way it has to be in order to make ends meet for myself and my family,” Christen said. “We have employees that qualify for Section 8 housing, we have employees that qualify for food stamps. And we have numerous employees that also work second jobs.”

The rise in the cost of living has compounded issues surrounding the low pay of municipal workers. The competitive wages and lower costs of living are leading them to take skills elsewhere, outside of Santa Cruz. 

Despite these issues, Christen also outlined some of his hopes surrounding the negotiations. 

“We’re looking to our City Council to really rectify that and create some institutional changes. […] This isn’t going to get solved overnight,” Christen said.