Nūz: Santa Cruz County News Briefs
Kelsa West is a bit confused. She works long hours as an "extra help" lifeguard at the Simpkins Family Swim Center, but she isn't sure who she's helping. The job classification would seem to imply West spends her workday assisting a more experienced permanent lifeguard, but there are none to be found at Simpkins. According to West, all of the lifeguards are hired on as extra help, even after they've been working at the pool for years.
The extra help classification is more than just a label. It means that West and the other lifeguards are not paid for sick days, lack medical benefits, have no retirement plan and must limit their work hours.
"The only conclusion that comes to mind is that the county simply doesn't want to offer the number of employees with benefits needed to have Simpkins operate safely," says West, who joined approximately 50 other members of Service Employees International Union 521 at the Aug. 7 Santa Cruz County Supervisor's meeting to push for more responsible use of the job classification.
The protest was meant to complement ongoing contract negotiations between SEIU 521 and Santa Cruz County. The current contract runs out on Sept. 10, and the two sides have met twice. The contract will cover approximately 1,800 county employees, including around 200 temporary workers.
West's pleading tone at the meeting gave the impression that insensitive cost-cutting maneuvers were leading to an unhappy workforce at the pool, but County Parks Director Barry Samuel says that most of the lifeguards in the Aquatics Division are attending school and actually welcome the flexibility.
"Most of our lifeguards can't work a 40-hour week 12 months a year," Samuel says. "They're just not available."
In order to create a disincentive toward what SEIU believes are abuses of the extra help classification—in which employees are hired as extra help, laid off after they max out their hours and then rehired in the next fiscal year—contract negotiator Daniel Torrez is attempting to include yearly step increases in this contract. His reasoning is that after a few years, the cost of increasing an extra help worker's salary, or of training fresh workers with less experience, will overtake the cost of providing benefits.
"The county has told us they want to use extra help in the appropriate way," he says. "If you're using the same people over and over again and had a policy that after they worked a certain number of hours you'd give them an increase in pay, there would be a deterrent towards rehiring the same person for the same job."
County Public Information Officer Dinah Phillips would not comment on the contract negotiations.
Shortly following a rally in April over the same issue, though, Phillips said it was against official county policy to continually rehire the same person for an extra help position. While the stories offered by West and others at last week's meeting would seem to indicate that the county may be continuing to violate its own policy, Phillips notes there is often a legitimate reason to hire on the same worker year after year.
"Maybe you've got folks who work for the Agricultural Commissioner's office, and it's seasonal work," says Phillips. "The times of the year we need them are during a certain growing season. So these folks might come on every year to work their 999 hours and then the season's up, so they go off and do something else until next year, when we again have that workload need."
Despite the ongoing arguments over application of the extra help classification, Torrez is confident there will be a reasonable and timely resolution to the conflict.
"We were really just here to raise the awareness of the Board of Supervisors," he says. "We just want to make sure they know how extra help is being used in the county."
In her four years of directing the Literacy Program at the Santa Cruz Volunteer Center, Barbara Davis has grown accustomed to the typical volunteer being a retired woman. But lately that's been changing. The program is attracting more men, recent college graduates, business owners, artists, doctors, tattooed Santa Cruz hipsters and full-time professionals in their 20s and 30s, all drawn to the chance to change lives through education.
Speaking about the shift, Davis notes that the program is "lucky to have a more accurate reflection of the general Santa Cruz population because it ensures the program will stay alive and continue to grow." She adds that the new demographic suggests the program has something to offer many people. "Students and tutors build strong bonds, regardless of a five- or 50-year gap in age," she says.
The program's approximately 130 tutors instruct 200 adults and their families in reading, writing and speaking English. Volunteers can tutor one-on-one, instruct small groups or join the flourishing workplace literacy project for the employees at Chaminade (a partnership born two years ago when Chaminade became a financial supporter of the Literacy Program).
The next training session is in September. Those interested should visit www.scvolunteercenter.com/literacyprogram or call 831.427.5077.
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