Calif. county jail COs plan strike, cite dangerous work conditions

Officials said they consider the strike illegal and would seek an injunction so essential services aren't interrupted


By Brianna Vaccari
The Fresno Bee

FRESNO COUNTY, Calif. — The union for Fresno County corrections officers intends to strike at the end of the month because of what they call unsafe and understaffed working conditions.

The Fresno County Public Safety Association represents around 1,200 employees, including correctional officers employed by the Fresno County Sheriff’s Office. In a news release, the union compared the salaries of correctional officers to sheriff’s deputies, noting deputies have received raises much higher than correctional officers.

Union officials said the strike is planned for May 23.

“The exhaustive working conditions within the corrections classifications and the simple fact that it has become virtually impossible to recruit and retain qualified staff has resulted in unsafe and understaffed working conditions,” union officials said in the news release.

County officials said the union rejected its last and best offer after nine meetings of negotiations and three state mediation sessions in March. County officials said they consider the strike illegal and would seek an injunction so essential services aren’t interrupted.

“The sheriff’s office has a plan to effectively respond to this job action,” Fresno County’s Administrative Officer Paul Nerland said in a statement. “In the event of a strike, jail facilities will continue to prioritize and ensure the safety of the public, staff, and inmates. The county’s plan is not to release inmates prematurely as a result of this temporary job action, and impact to jail operations will be minimal, if any.”

In an interview with The Bee, Nerland said a county employee union hasn’t gone on strike in about a decade.

“On behalf of the ( Fresno County Board of Supervisors) and myself, the correctional officers have a very difficult job, and so I just want to make sure in this process that it’s understood from me how much I appreciate what they do,” he said.

Despite the vacancies, hundreds of people are applying to be correctional officers, and the county is hiring, Nerland said. Nineteen people accepted job offers and are undergoing medical evaluations, and more than 275 people applied and wanted to test to become a correctional officer.

“I just want to make clear that it is a very difficult job, but we also are bringing more on to work in this very difficult job,” Nerland said. “Thankfully, there are people in this community who want to be a public servant.”

County Supervisor Steve Brandau said he hopes negotiations will continue so the county and union reaches a deal. He said, in his opinion, the negotiations were rushed.

Brandau said he thought the county made a fair offer to the union that was in line with other bargaining units. He called the strike “uncomfortable” and “unfortunate.”

The union said working in the jail, or juvenile corrections has become increasingly more dangerous since the passage of Proposition 47 and AB109, which shifted many inmates from state prisons to county jails and reclassified some crimes from felonies to misdemeanors.

The union began negotiations with the county in 2021. The county’s final proposal included an 11% raise, increases to health insurance contributions, 7.5% premium pay for retention, a one-time $1,500 pandemic payment, and a $500 payment for correctional officers who work in congregate settings.

The union rejected the proposal, saying the increases wouldn’t go into effect until 2023 and weren’t enough to keep up with inflation. Additionally, the health care improvements would only apply to under 75 of 1,000 union members.

Tony Silva is a labor representative for the union who works with the firm Goyette, Ruano & Thompson. While working conditions are a big issue for the union membership, the crux of the issue comes down to pay, he said.

“Normally what I see when there’s some type of disparity to this magnitude is, you’ll see an employer say we can’t make it up in one year, but over the next several years, we’re going to provide some sort of equity adjustment to get you to what other bargaining units have gotten,” Silva said. “Show me another bargaining unit who’s gotten 7.5% over 12 years. Find them for me. I think you’ll be hard pressed to find it.”

Union officials said in the news release that the county’s proposal was not equitable.

“The County needs to provide equity adjustments to bring our salary in line with what inflation has done since 2010,” union officials said.

The county reminded union members they have the right not to strike. If employees do participate in the strike, they won’t earn regular pay and can’t use their sick or vacation time.

County officials said they hope to reach an agreement with the union “and avoid the disharmony resulting from a strike.”

The sheriff declined to comment for this story other than to say through a spokesperson that sheriff’s officials hope to avoid a strike.

©2022 The Fresno Bee. Visit fresnobee.com. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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