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An SEIU member shows off an tattoo that says "Oakland" on their hand. People carrying picket signs walk in the background.

City workers: Oakland’s employees are understaffed and underpaid

on September 30, 2019

On Wednesday, hundreds of city workers rallied at Frank Ogawa Plaza to call attention to what they say are high vacancy rates in city departments, and to protest the suspension of contract negotiations between their unions and city officials. As the temperature reached nearly 100 degrees, members of two unions marched up and down 14th Street, chanting, “Who serves Oakland? We serve Oakland!”

Holding signs that read “Don’t Gentrify Oakland’s City Workers!” and “Support City Workers for the Oakland We All Deserve,” union members briefly blocked the intersection of 14th Street and Broadway, before returning to the plaza. “What do we want? Contract! When do we want it? Now!” they shouted, as Aretha Franklin’s “Respect” played in the background.

A deafening honk interrupted the rally. It came from a city street cleaning truck, which was passing by. A “City Workers Hella Love Oakland” picket sign had been carefully plastered to the truck’s side. The driver beeped a few more times before driving off.

At a protest, a city worker raises a fist in the air while holding a sign that says "Oakland city workers are hella understaffed."
City of Oakland workers rallied at Frank Ogawa Plaza to protest what they say are high vacancy rates in city departments.

Contract negotiations between Service Employees International Union (SEIU) Local 1021, the International Federation of Professional and Technical Engineers (IFPTE) Local 21, and city officials began in June. Representatives for the unions, whose members include engineers, librarians, street cleaning crews, and other public sector employees, asked a 8.0 to 8.5 percent wage increase over two years.

Union representatives did not accept the city’s offer of a 4 percent increase over two years, as well as a one-time 1 percent increase and a $1,028 fee for full-time employees. City administrators declared an impasse in June, saying the two sides could not agree on wages and how to fill vacancies. Both unions filed unfair labor practice charges, saying city officials had declared an impasse prematurely.

A 4 percent wage increase over two years is insufficient given Oakland’s cost of living, said Laura Takeshita, an administrative analyst for the city and an IFPTE steward, as she stood beneath a tree in the plaza during the protest, briefly shielded from the sun. “Oakland has rent control, but landlords are allowed to raise the rent something like 3.5 percent a year. So for people who live in Oakland, if we were to take 2 [percent], they’re even farther behind now, because their rent’s gone up, but their pay really hasn’t.

According to a semi-annual staffing report released in April, city departments had a 14.49 percent vacancy rate. Of 4,455.17 full-time equivalent (FTE) city positions, 645.66 were vacant. The report noted the addition of 316.92 FTE positions in the past two years. Departments with the highest vacancy rates included transportation, housing, and community development, and the police commission. (The Department of Violence Prevention had a vacancy rate of 100 percent in March, but its first chief has since been hired.)

“We are now [at] 600 vacancies. We’re very understaffed, and as a result, a lot of our workers are covering two and three desks,” Takeshita said. She has worked for the city for 23 years and said she has felt the strain of understaffing in her department. “We have a lot of people retiring who are not being replaced. We have people who are realizing that with the same job title, same responsibilities, they can go to another city and make more.” 

“In my position, we had someone retire and so we are having to share the workload,” she continued over the chants of protestors. “We’re hoping to encourage the city to work with us to fill these positions. Not only so that we aren’t doing two or three jobs, but more workers means it heightens our ability to provide services to the community.”

City spokesperson Karen Boyd responded to interview requests directed to the City Administrator’s Office with a written statement. “The City of Oakland has focused on four key goals during labor negotiations: secure long-term health benefits for employees, offer a fair wage increase that is within the existing budget, speed the hiring process, and ensure we can deliver critical services to our community now and into the future,” she wrote. “The City has proposed no changes to key benefits or civil service rights.”

A pile of picket signs, stacked on steps near Frank Ogawa Plaza.
One picket sign read, “City workers hella love Oakland.”

“We recognize the impact that vacancies have on departmental operations and have asked the Unions to partner with us in speeding up the hiring process to fill vacancies more quickly,” Boyd continued. “The City has proposed minor modifications to unnecessarily restrictive and time-consuming processes that delay hiring and slow our efforts to fill vacancies in a timely manner. These proposed modifications are in line with best practices in other public agencies. So far both Unions have flatly rejected those proposals.”

The statement also compared Oakland’s wage increases to those of other public agencies. According to the statement, of 13 regional city and county agencies, Oakland and San Jose provided the highest wage increases over the past four years. But in a letter sent to Mayor Libby Schaaf in August, members of the Alameda Labor Council Executive Committee wrote that city employee wages lag behind Oakland’s cost of living.

Sitting in the IFPTE office in downtown Oakland several weeks before the demonstration, IFPTE specialist Jennifer Li said the union hoped to gain a “slew of things” in the bargaining process, including wage increases and equity studies. Ultimately, she said, the union’s priority is “retaining our workers. Because it’s not just recruiting people—we literally can’t retain people. Even if you hire one new person, like, three people are leaving. A lot of folks here are underpaid and they know they can get better jobs elsewhere, but they stay here because they all love Oakland.”

Li said city employees leave Oakland for other, better-paying public agencies. “One of our members was saying, it’s like the A’s. People just come here to train and then they leave. It’s like, you come in here for your three years, one year, of experience, and then you find a job elsewhere.”

Like Takeshita, Li argued that city wages are too low given the cost of housing in Oakland. “There are workers who are on the verge of homelessness right now. And they are city workers that have full-time jobs, are on our city bargaining team, and they were living in their cars,” Li said. “We think of [city jobs] as a gateway to the middle class, but we’re so behind. And the fact that some of your workers are homeless, shouldn’t that alarm you, as a city administrative head? Are you going to build a Tuff Shed just for city workers?”

Negotiations between the unions and city representatives have now entered a fact-finding period. During six fact-finding sessions, to be held in late September and October, both sides will present arguments to a panel. A neutral chairperson will present a recommendation based on the sessions.

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Oakland North is an online news service produced by students at the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism and covering Oakland, California. Our goals are to improve local coverage, innovate with digital media, and listen to you–about the issues that concern you and the reporting you’d like to see in your community. Please send news tips to: oaklandnorthstaff@gmail.com.

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