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Monday, June 17, 2024
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City CouncilMilpitas City employees consider going on strike during contract negotiation deadlock

Milpitas City employees consider going on strike during contract negotiation deadlock

Feelings of frustration are mounting for two groups of employees that work for the City of Milpitas. 

These workers say they aren’t being compensated fairly by the City. After months of trying to agree on a contract, the employees and the City of Milpitas are at an impasse. The employees’ contracts expired on June 30, 2023 – and the future outlook for their renewal is uncertain.  

One of the employee groups is Milpitas’ Professional Technical Workers. Known as ProTech, this union group has 72 members in its unit, which encompasses Office Assistants, Enforcement Officers, Accounting Technicians, and Recreation Services Assistants. 

Avery Stark currently works for the City of Milpitas as an Associate Planner in the Planning Department. He has also been serving as President of ProTech for the past several years. 

“ProTech represents every department across the entire City except the Police Department,” said Stark in an interview with The Beat. “We’re the face of Milpitas. ProTech is there to make the services and programs occur and function.”

ProTech’s most recent contract with Milpitas spanned from July 2019 to June 2023.

“The Milpitas City Council has said that they want to recognize us for all the work we do, but recognizing means compensating highly skilled people for their jobs,” said Stark. “When you don’t meet us at the bargaining table, it doesn’t feel like you really care.” 

Robert De Long currently works as the Senior Lead of the Fleet Department in the City of Milpitas’ Public Works Department. He oversees the operation of public safety vehicles and other city vehicles throughout Milpitas. De Long has been working for Milpitas for the past 25 years. Since 2011, he has served as the President of Milpitas Employees Association (MEA), which has 62 members and includes workers in Milpitas’ Public Works Department, such as Utility Maintenance Workers, Street Maintenance Workers, and Park and Landscaping Maintenance Workers.

MEA’s last contract spanned from July 2020 to June 2023. 

“Our last contract was negotiated under Covid. During Covid, we accepted less than what we were after,” said De Long. 

However, at present, both ProTech and MEA are hoping not to settle for less than what they feel their workers deserve. 

While the pandemic was unfolding, De Long and other Public Works employees put everything on the line to keep Milpitas running smoothly. As the world shut down, the Public Works employees in Milpitas remained out in the field, working harder than ever before.  

De Long said that he had the first three days of the pandemic to work from home. After that, it was back to work during a period of extraordinary chaos. 

“Everyone realized that the City couldn’t function without us,” said De Long in an interview with the Beat. “Our members provide more services to the citizens in Milpitas than any department in the City.” 

Public Works employees had to ensure that the City was running smoothly – they kept the water flowing, the signal lights working, the debris cleared, the sewers functioning properly… 

“All my guys worked. We were swimming in Covid. We all got sick,” said De Long. “Luckily nobody died. We didn’t ask the City for anything extra.”  

Representatives of ProTech and MEA told The Beat that they’ve tried to meet with the City to come to a solution and move forward on new contracts; however, they say that the City has not been willing to budge on any of their requests. The requests are as follows…

Cost of Living Adjustment (COLA) 

ProTech members would like to see a 6% COLA increase in the first year, and a 4% COLA increase in the second year; MEA is asking for 7% and 4%, respectively.

Since the cost of living increases over time, a COLA, or Cost of Living Adjustment, is a way of counteracting the inevitable effects of inflation and ensuring that employees receive a fair amount of pay. A COLA can support employees in navigating rising expenses. 

In a letter obtained by The Beat from this past September, Stark and Labor Relations Representative Ryan Heron wrote to the Milpitas City Council to try to move the City closer to settling on a contract. In the letter, it read: “It is essential to acknowledge that the cost of living in the Milpitas area is among the highest in the nation and, like many other parts of California, has steadily increased over the years.” 

In 2022, California was found to be the fourth most expensive state to live in. In Milpitas, where housing expenses are 269% higher than the national average, it can be a struggle to secure financial stability.  

Per ProTech’s last contract with the City of Milpitas, they saw COLA increases of 5% in 2019, 4% in 2022, 3% in 2021, and 3% in 2022. 

“Our requests for 6% in the 1st year and 4% in the 2nd year are in line with the national averages and equity in compensation is a fundamental principal that ensures fairness and motivates employees to perform their best,” Stark and Heron also wrote in the letter to Council. 

In MEA’s last contract, the City agreed to COLA increases of 6%, 3%, and 3% over three years – which was lower than what MEA members felt they truly needed at the time. For a new contract, MEA also feels that their requests for 7% in the first year, followed by 4% in the second year are more than reasonable. 

However, in recent negotiations, the City of Milpitas has offered 4% in the first year and 3% in the second year to both ProTech and MEA.  

To put the numbers in perspective, both union groups have written letters to the Milpitas City Council, stating that a 1% increase of base salaries for ProTech staff would cost the City $115,983, while 1% more for MEA is equivalent to $74,534.

Both groups of workers are currently the lowest paid employees working for the City of Milpitas.

Within ProTech, a Recreation Services Assistant makes an annual salary as low as $44,579, while a Maintenance Assistant in Milpitas’ Public Works Department is shown to make as low as $61,214.  

“In 2022, the Consumer Price Index (CPI) jumped to 8%. And in that year alone, we got a 3% increase, which means we were still out,” explained Stark. “That dollar didn’t have the same increase. Yes, it was an increase, but because of the pandemic, the high CPI offset it. So the dollar was worth less.” 

Longevity Pay and Certification Pay 

Both groups are also looking for Longevity Pay, which would give the employees 1% at 10 years, 15 years, and 20 years of employment. 

ProTech members also seek 2.5% Certification Pay as an incentive for employees who are obtaining and maintaining certain professional development skills.

At present, ProTech workers have no Longevity Pay in place. MEA currently has Longevity Pay of .5% at 10 years, 15 years, and 20 years; however, they would like to see that pay increase to 1% as well. 

ProTech and MEA workers believe that since the City of Milpitas gives other groups of workers 1% in Longevity Pay, it’s only fair to give their groups the same amount. 

Also, while MEA and other units in the City already have Certification Pay, it has not been made available to ProTech employees. 

“Right now, only building inspectors of ProTech get this 1% increase for a particular type of certification for residential construction, and 1% for commercial construction,” said Stark. 

At that time this was negotiated, the City of Milpitas was building and getting a lot of development and entitlements, and needed staff to be well-versed. 

“So that was the incentive. They’d be paid more to get the education to be a more skilled, knowledgeable, fine-tuned person to serve the City,” said Stark. “And what we’re looking for now is for that to be available to all ProTech members. There’s no equity in our contract right now.”  

Juneteenth as a City-Paid Holiday 

Both ProTech and MEA employees would also like to see Juneteenth recognized as a City-paid holiday. 

Ruby General has been working for the City of Milpitas for nearly nine years. She is currently an Outreach and Volunteer Coordinator for the Recreation & Community Services Department, as well as Vice President of ProTech.

Over the years, General and other members of her team have gone above and beyond to serve the community. During Covid, it was staff from the Recreation & Community Services Department who interfaced with the community, who delivered meals to seniors and ran Covid testing sites. 

Staff from Recreation also works on such holidays as the 4th of July, Memorial Day, and Veterans Day to run City events for the public. MEA workers have also had to show up to work on July 4th.  

Since these employees must work on nationally recognized holidays and must sacrifice time away from their families, they feel that it would only be appropriate for the City to allow them to have Juneteenth off; or barring that, allow for employees to have a floating holiday that they can use on a day of their choosing during the year. 

“The City of Milpitas has recognized and celebrated Juneteenth since 2018 with flag raisings and other events, but employees don’t have it as a holiday,” said General. 

This point was also raised in ProTech’s recent letter to Council: 

“It is highly insulting to ProTech members to make them work on a holiday that the City recognizes for the public yet refuses to recognize for City staff. When this holiday was formally recognized by the Federal Government, it represented an additional paid holiday for federal staff and many in the private and public sectors. The City should do the right thing and recognize it for City employees as well.” 

Reasons for the Stall 

Back in 2020, during the pandemic, the City of Milpitas asked employees if they would give up their COLA increases for the coming year. 

“They said they were projecting a budget shortfall,” said De Long. “So they came to us during the middle of the pandemic, right after MEA negotiated our last contract. Six months after that contract, they’re asking us to give money up. But we already took less money than what we needed to begin with.” 

Both ProTech and MEA refused to give their salary increases up. After all, they were some of the lowest paid workers in the City and felt they needed that money to survive and take care of their families.  

“The way it’s been explained to me through the grapevine, we’re basically being punished right now for having not given up our 3% to help the City,” said De Long.   

Meanwhile, the other employee groups – the Milpitas Police Officers Association (MPOA), Mid-Con (which is made up of managers and department heads), and the International Association of Fire Fighters (IAFF) – all agreed to give up their salary increases for 2021.  

“It’s easier to give up a raise when you’re making more,” noted De Long. 

Moving Forward

The Beat reached out to the City of Milpitas to ask why they haven’t been able to meet the requests of ProTech and MEA. A City spokesperson responded via email, writing: “The City has made a very fair contract offer in line with the City’s budgetary restrictions.”

The City also stated that it wasn’t true that they are “punishing” both groups for not taking a pay cut a couple of years ago. 

Although ProTech and MEA don’t want to have to go on strike, Stark told The Beat that it’s a tool in their toolbox that they will use if they have to. 

“If ProTech and MEA are on strike, and a water main breaks, this city will be flooded. There would be no one to fix it,” said Stark. 

But going on strike is not a decision that either group will make lightly. 

“We’re the lowest paid people in all the City. We don’t get paid during strikes,” said General. “Some of my coworkers can’t afford to go without pay. And I don’t want to put them in a financial bind.” 

In an interview with The Beat, Milpitas Vice Mayor Evelyn Chua said, “I’m hoping for a positive outcome. They’re valued members of the City. On the other hand, we have to look out for all of the needs of all the employees. But we will do our best to be fair and equitable — and at the same time, fiscally responsible.”

Both employee groups have said that Vice Mayor Chua and Councilmember Hon Lien have met with them, but that they have not yet heard from the other three members.

Next month, there will be a Fact Finding Hearing where a third party will listen to both sides. General told The Beat that they are also planning for an Informational Picket at the City’s upcoming holiday event. 

“We’ll be handing out pamphlets to the community at the tree-lighting event,” said General. “It’s going to be very peaceful. We’re not going to be disruptive and ruin anyone’s time. We’re just going to hand out info to the community so they know what’s going on.” 

Meanwhile, representatives of both ProTech and MEA feel that the City should not be overspending on other priorities when their employees’ salaries aren’t keeping up with the rising cost of living. They feel that high-paying management positions have needlessly increased and taken up too much space in the City’s budget. 

“We have a top-heavy organization. We had three City Managers. Now we have two, and we should stay at two. We need the workforce to do the work. That’s who is out in the community,” said Stark. 

De Long said that over the years, he has seen many employees leave the City of Milpitas for other opportunities where they’re compensated more fairly. 

“In the past, employees have come to Milpitas to stay. But in these last few years, we’ve been losing people. Our members have had enough. They don’t feel like they’ve been treated right, especially during these tough times,” said De Long.

 

 



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Rhoda Shapiro
Rhoda Shapiro
Rhoda Shapiro is the winner of a 2022 Golden Quill Award for her Education journalism. She works as a journalist and media consultant in the Bay Area. She has written for both the Tri-City Voice and the Mercury News, and is the founder of Chi Media Company, which works mostly with nonprofit organizations and educational entities to elevate their marketing and communication platforms. Rhoda is also the author of “Fierce Woman: Wake up your Badass Self” and “Magic Within: Womb-Centered Wisdom to Realize the Power of Your Sacred Feminine Self.” Her YouTube channel features practices in yoga, meditation, and women’s empowerment. Rhoda is The Milpitas Beat’s Founder and Editor-in-Chief.

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