A coalition claiming to represent hundreds of social workers, who help residents process applications for public benefits like MediCal, say the union that is supposed to represent them didn’t go to bat for their interests when negotiating a new 3-year contract.

That contract is expected to be finalized by the Orange County Board of Supervisors at today’s 9:30 a.m. meeting.

It comes as a host of eligibility workers, tasked with helping about a third of the county’s population get public health insurance and CalFresh food stamps, say they are highly overworked, understaffed and underpaid compared to similar workers in nearby counties.

[Read: Will OC Social Services Workers Get Better Working Conditions in New Contract?]

Patricia Cortez, an eligibility worker who has worked for the county for 17 years and is against the new contract, said in a Monday phone interview workers are reaching their breaking point and fighting to change these conditions but feel let down by their union.

“The demands on eligibility workers are a lot,” Cortez said. “We’ve picketed at two different offices, we had people go and speak to the Board of Supervisors, you got to understand these people are taking their own time to do this.”

She adds that some employees are having to utilize the public benefits themselves to get by and are worried about residents who rely on them to get the benefits they need at a time when the demand for assistance is high.

The Social Services Agency on June 16, 2020 in Santa Ana. Credit: JULIE LEOPO, Voice of OC

Are Workers’ Demands Going Unheard?

Workers like Cortez wanted hero pay for their work during the pandemic, to allow for greater telework opportunities to help worker retention, a Juneteenth holiday, metal detectors at offices for safety, a 18% raise as well as retroactive pay starting July of this year for any wage increase with the new contract.

But they say leadership with their union – American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Local 2076 – failed to get any of those demands in the new agreement.

Cortez and others have criticized their Union President Diana Corral, saying she is not transparent and did not address or consider workers’ concerns about the negotiation process.

Corral said in a Monday phone interview that metal detectors are not something that typically get negotiated in a contract, that the county pushed back on hero pay and that many people do telework but due to staffing shortages there is need for workers to be in the office to help clients in-person.

“For this small contingency of workers that are disgruntled against the union, all I can say is that I’ve encouraged them to run for office next term,” she said. “This is not an easy job.”

Corral added that the union was able to secure a health reimbursement agreement with the county – a retiree medical plan –  that she said would help retain workers.

Other workers say the county was already looking to create this retiree medical plan for all general employees.

As of Monday, the newest contract was not on the county’s human resources website.

County of Orange Social Services Agency in Santa Ana on May 19, 2020. Credit: JULIE LEOPO, Voice of OC

Contract Negotiation Concerns

In a 14-page document sent to the Voice of OC, a coalition of workers criticized their union leaders for thwarting the negotiation process – starting with the lead representative in discussions.

Workers raised concerns about Cory Cordova, the lead negotiator representing the union, saying he failed to prepare for the negotiations, did not push for retroactive pay without consulting members and alleged he intimidated workers who spoke out.

Cordova did not respond to a request for comment Monday.

An online petition to remove Cordova as negotiator garnered 290 signatures.

Some eligibility workers have also raised concerns about the voting process for the contract that they say should have been conducted online for more people to participate as opposed to in-person during the work week. 

Corral said the union’s voting rules require over 2,000 employees to do an online vote and defended Cordova saying he has always helped workers.

Cortez said about 870 workers out of over 1,500 employees came out to vote on the contract, with 367 voting against it.

“I want to say not in any of the last three ratifications did we have more than 12 no’s at any time for any contract so the fact that 367 members are willing to say no, and wait a little bit longer for a better contract that speaks volumes,” she said.

Corral acknowledged that during her tenure as president she hadn’t seen that many people vote against a contract but most people were still in favor of it.

“Compensation wise, we do deserve more. I’m a worker also – everybody on the executive board, we’re all workers,” she said.  

“Why would we bargain ourselves down to something that was just not fair?”

Hosam Elattar is a Voice of OC reporter and corps member with Report for America, a GroundTruth initiative. Contact him at helattar@voiceofoc.org or on Twitter @ElattarHosam.


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