After a year of full-time employment with the city of Costa Mesa, a worker represented by the current contract for general employees receives 92 hours of paid vacation.
But the city recently proposed a two-year labor contract that would slash that benefit by more than half — to 40 hours — in order to trim costs.
The cuts to vacation and sick leave would be in addition to an across-the-board 5% pay cut, a 5% increase in employee pension contributions — which would effectively reduce take-home pay — and a potential 5% pay cut for top-tiered employees.
City officials and their independent negotiator, Richard Kreisler, handed off the first-round proposal to the Costa Mesa City Employees Assn., which represents about 200 city workers, on Aug. 6. The association's previous contract expired in March, and its representatives next meet at the bargaining table Sept. 10.
Mayor Jim Righeimer called the proposed CMCEA contract a return to "normalcy," meaning a closer reflection to what those working for private employers make in terms of pay, benefits and sick and vacation time.
The government payroll system, Righeimer said, is like a "science of how you can drastically increase your income without the world knowing what you're really making."
But a representative for the employees argued that Righeimer and some other members of the council are offering pay cuts as part of a continued assault on the municipal work force.
"This isn't about money," said Jennifer Muir of the Orange County Employees Assn., which represents the CMCEA. "This is about a wall-to-wall attempt to gut the city's contracts with employees, and it's just another punch in this attack by the City Council majority.
"The city's work force feels that there are some real common-sense ways to work together with the city and reach an agreement that protects the high level of service and keeps the community strong. There's a better way."
Other proposed cuts in the CMCEA contract include two fewer floating paid holidays — a loss of Lincoln's birthday in February and California Admission Day in September — and large changes to sick pay. Employees would still receive 10 paid holidays.
Current employees have two “banks” for sick leave. Their primary bank can accumulate up to 96 hours a year, with a cap of 480 hours. Additional accrued sick leave can go into a secondary bank that has no accrual maximum.
Employees with at least 20 years of service can cash out half of their unused sick leave from their primary bank upon leaving the city or retiring. The secondary bank cannot be cashed out.
Under the new contract, there would be no new secondary sick leave banks. Current employees' unused time within the secondary banks would have be used before digging into any primary bank time, which would be capped at 221 hours.
The primary banks' yearly accrual would also be changed from 96 to 48 hours, and employees could no longer cash out sick pay.
Muir called the proposals to cut sick and vacation pay a "very minimal impact on the bottom line. We're not talking about big-dollar amounts here."
But one of Righeimer's biggest problems with the current CMCEA benefits system is that the cashing out of unused sick leave and vacation time can amount to tens of thousands of dollars.
"Nowhere do you find, except in government, that people get $50,000, $60,000, $70,000 checks on their way out," Righeimer said. "I think what we're doing is returning to normalcy. In reality, what we had before was extremely aggressive, with people being allowed to get $50,000 'Winnebago checks' when they leave the city."
Rather than banking the unused time, Righeimer said, employees should take the vacation and "be ready and rested to come back to work."
Banking "doesn't do anything good for the city, the employee or the residents," he added. "There's no value that the citizens get out of the banking of vacations."
Muir called Righeimer's "Winnebago checks" comment "sarcastic" and said the entire proposed contract would destroy security for employees and years of consensus between the two sides.
City CEO Tom Hatch has been exemplary in leading the way toward leaner benefits, Righeimer said.
In June, the City Council approved a new contract for Hatch, who, while simultaneously receiving a retroactive salary increase, also took cuts to his vacation time, maximum vacation accrual and sick leave. He also will contribute more to his pension.
Hatch is not a CMCEA member and isn't in any kind of collective-bargaining unit.
In Costa Mesa, "clearly this is a very contentious labor situation," said Kent Wong, director of the UCLA Center for Labor Research and Education.
Contract negotiations will vary from city to city, Wong said, depending on a variety of factors. Orange County hasn't had a strong tradition of "pro-union sentiment" among the city councils or a "positive, cooperative spirit," he said.
"Frequently, the political environment has a lot to do with what the employers think they can get away with," Wong said. "I think that in areas where there might be stronger union presence, or there might be a longer history of active union involvement, then I think it would be more difficult to make these types of pretty drastic cuts."
He called the contract "hostile" and from a city council that's not in a "particularly friendly bargaining mood."
"Sometimes they put a very harsh first proposal in order to reduce expectations on the part of the employees," Wong added. "Sometimes they test the waters to see what type of response they'll get."
Fred Smoller, an associate political science professor at Chapman University in Orange, said Costa Mesa's "is not a bloated government." He called Orange County "the leanest in the state" in terms of public-employee staffing levels.
"Some of this [debate] is constructed out of ideology," he said of Righeimer's proposal to make government work more like the private sector. "There are certain people who just don't like the concept of unionization, period.
"There is this thing, and it's called the public service culture," he said. Such workers have a greater responsibility than many in the private sector, like when a water main breaks, Smoller said, and "we're going to expect those people to fix it first and not be watching the clock."
Public workers "are expected to do something more," he added. "If you start to treat them like they're treating them, you lose them."
By the numbers
Current CMCEA vacation accrual policy
Years of service: 1-2 years — 92 hours annually, capped at 184
3-4 years — 116 hours annually, capped at 232
5-9 years — 140 hours annually, capped at 280
10-14 years — 164 hours annually, capped at 328
15-19 years — 188 hours annually, capped at 376
20-plus — 212 hours annually, capped at 424
Proposed CMCEA contract
Years of service: 1 year — 40 hours annually
2-5 years — 80 hours annually
6+ years — 120 hours annually
Vacation accrual cap for all employees: 120 hours
Current CMCEA paid sick leave policy:
Primary sick leave bank: Accrual of up to 96 hours a year, capped at 480
Secondary sick leave bank: Once the primary bank is capped, new sick time goes into this bank, which has no accrual maximum
Cashing-out policy: Employees with at least 20 years of service can cash out half of their unused sick leave from their primary bank upon leaving the city or retiring. The second bank cannot be cashed out.
Proposed sick leave:
Primary sick leave bank: Accrual of up to 48 hours a year, capped out at 221
Second sick leave bank: NoneCopyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun