home | metro santa cruz index | news | santa cruz | news article

In The French Manner

Cash-strapped Watsonville moves to a 36-hour work week

By Jessica Lussenhop

IT'S BEEN a little over a week since Watsonville's City Council approved a series of tentative agreements that will whack the city employees' work week down to four nine-hour days, creating an overall 10 percent reduction in cost to the general fund and a service blackout one day per week, likely Fridays. During last week's public comment, not a soul stood up to weep for the lost wages or decry the city as draconian. A Zen-like sense of acceptance seems to have settled upon the city and its 557 employees. "People are pretty good about it. They knew it was coming," says Rex Rackley, the city's Lone Ranger of graffiti abatement. "I'm just happy to have a job."

The 2009-10 and 2010-11 biennial budget, in its current 300-page-plus incarnation, contains enough cuts to close a $4.5 million budget gap and is naturally a pretty gory read, rife with program cuts and service reductions. But the bulk necessarily had to come from employees, says administrative services director Marc Pimentel. "Nobody's looking forward to a 36-hour work week. The work level won't change," he says. "But that's the reality. We're not going to complain about it."

It was only a few months ago that many city employees accepted a two-week holiday work furlough, and it seems to be the best approximation of what residents can expect Fridays in Watsonville to look like after July 17--no dumping your compost, no paying the water bill, no retrieving a towed vehicle.

Pimentel says the impact seems to have been minimal. "We didn't have this mountain of voice messages saying, 'I couldn't get this done, where were you?'" he says, adding: "The fortunate thing is this is temporary. "

That is, of course, if economic woes lessen. While the agreements are only for one year, with room to reassess if revenues pick back up, Pimentel is already projecting a deficit for the next three fiscal years, starting at $2.8 million for 2010-11. Though the firefighters' union has yet to cut a deal with the city, the police have already agreed to a 7.5 percent reduction, though Lt. Edward Gluhan says that citizens will see the same number of cops on the street, just not so many behind the desks at 215 Union St. "It is very likely that our civilian staff will see an hour reduction. Some of the things they do will have to be done by officers," he says. "It may impact how quickly they'll be able to respond to lower priority situations."

The nonsafety unions banded together in a coalition early on, hoping to make the most of the $2.8 million worth of concessions the city was asking for. But at first the amount was a shock, says Operating Engineers Local No. 3 representative and coalition spokesman David Cariaga.

"We were taken aback by the steep amount of reduction they wanted," he says. "We spent weeks, if not months, looking at the city's budget, making sure it definitely was true. Once we believed the numbers, we changed our stance and worked with them." He says the 18 members of OE3, SEIU Local 521, management and the rest of the group quickly abandoned the quest for raises and settled for minimizing the carnage. "[The city] did not come off their mark, [whereas] we probably moved off our mark four times in a three-week period," says Cariaga. "That's what they call hard bargaining."

In the end, Cariaga says, as the highly unpopular May 19 ballot measures neared and the revenue forecast worsened, the coalition felt pressure to make a move. "[We thought,] if we keep holding out, what happens when the state taps the city for more money? Do we cut our losses now?" he says. "We thought, 'What's it going to be like when they get pink slips?' We didn't want to put our co-workers through that if we could prevent it."

Their conclusion: it is far better to have worked and lost 10 percent than not to work at all. The four-day week has pared down some 80 to 100 layoffs to just eight.

"The city has a very collegial atmosphere. It was almost everyone's top priority not to have any job cuts," said one library employee who sat at the bargaining table. "It's not easy, but it's something that I can deal with. I have a kid, so four days a week is actually kind of nice."

But it's still not smooth sailing from here. The state may come looking for a handout--in Watsonville's case, up to a $1.85 million handout--and if so, jobs will again be at serious risk across all departments, according to Pimentel.

Send a letter to the editor about this story.