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Mediation looms in Sacramento court labor talks

Negotiations between Sacramento Superior Court and its technical staff over a new contract are now headed to a mediator after nearly two months of labor talks centering on pay and benefits have apparently reached an impasse.

Court officials in early October reached accord with Teamsters-represented supervisors in early October on a three-year contract that provides a 3 percent pay increase in each of the first two years and a conditional 3 percent raise in the third contract year dependent on funding, said Sacramento Superior Court Executive Officer Timothy Ainsworth.

It’s the same offer that is on the table for union-represented court professionals and the court reporters, account clerks, attendants and deputy clerks who comprise court technical staff, Ainsworth said. Negotiations continue with court professional staff, he added, but the road to an agreement with technical staffers has been a bumpier one.

The technical staffers are a frustrated lot these days. Budget and job cuts have shrunk the courthouse’s workforce from about 840 before the recession to about 610 now, say court officials; pay has remained stagnant and workers fear proposed reductions in employers’ premium contributions and changes to employee health plans will force them to pay more for health care.

They have taken to wearing red on Fridays, symbolizing the employees who Ted Somera, executive director of United Public Employees Local 1, calls “the blood running through the veins of the court.” Frustration also appears clear on the union’s website. After Sacramento court negotiators rejected the most recent proposal from the bargaining unit representing court technical staff in early October, a website headline read: “The Court Responds: ‘You’re Not Worth It!’ ”

On Tuesday came a “breakout” session on the courthouse plaza where employees renewed calls to raise workers’ pay and preserve existing health benefits.

“We’re fighting over preserving our benefits. The deal the courts have on the table doesn’t suffice,” Somera said during the noontime demonstration Tuesday outside downtown Sacramento’s Gordon Schaber Courthouse where workers held handwritten signs that read “Raise Employees’ Pay: We Earn It,” and chanted “I don’t want to strike, but I will.”

The two sides are working toward an agreement on a mediation.

Union and court technical employees who demonstrated Tuesday framed the contract fight as one over the preservation of benefits as much as pay. But the court’s Ainsworth said Superior Court pays 92 percent of most employees’ health premiums. No change is proposed in the contract’s first year.

But in the court’s proposal, employers’ contribution to employees with one or more dependents would drop to 91 percent in year 2 and again to 90 percent in year 3 – a contribution amount that Ainsworth said remains “far and above what other comparable (employers) do.”

The talks come as the court’s fiscal future remains tenuous, Ainsworth said. Though Sacramento Superior Court won funding increases each of the last two years after budget cuts in previous cycles, Ainsworth said Wednesday that there are “no assurance of future increases” adding that “the financial situation remains difficult and uncertain.”

But Somera says court workers who agreed to wage concessions during the depths of the recession should be rewarded in the new contract.

“We helped the courts when they came to us in 2009. They seem to have forgotten about that,” Somera said. “We understood the fiscal crisis they were facing. Now that the grass is greener, they say there’s a drought. We want a livable, workable contract.”

Darrell Smith: 916-321-1040, @dvaughnsmith