Anthony Grandon spent three dispiriting years looking for work before he finally found an employer who didn’t mind his autism.
PRIDE Industries, which trains disabled people for work, placed him at a job working on its custodial contract at a state hospital for prison inmates in Stockton. Grandon loved it, telling a legislative hearing that it “gave me opportunities I never even dreamed of.”
He’s worried he might have to begin another job search.
PRIDE’s contract at the California Health Care Facility is coming to an end, primarily because state government’s largest union filed a grievance charging that it violated state protections against outsourcing public sector jobs. The union wants to bring the disabled workers onto the state payroll, but there are no guarantees.
Digital Access for only $0.99
For the most comprehensive local coverage, subscribe today.
Some of the disabled workers could be laid off as early as September if the Legislature, PRIDE and Service Employees International Union Local 1000 can’t find a compromise, said PRIDE Vice President Don Nelson.
“Our concern is that our employees with disabilities will not have the support and systems we provide,” even if they make the cut for civil service, Nelson told an Assembly budget subcommittee on Monday.
PRIDE has 217 employees at the prison, and 121 of them have disabilities. Some are taking tests that would qualify them to apply for jobs in civil service, but they might not pass.
Passing the test also does not guarantee them a job.
"They have to compete like everyone else does to gain civil service status. It’s a competitive process," said Yulanda Mynhier, director of policy and administration for California Correctional Health Care Services.
The conflict dates back to 2015, when the federal receivership that oversees health care in California prisons sought to improve cleanliness and sanitation at the Stockton site. The receivership conducted an audit of the prison that year and concluded that sanitation had to be addressed immediately.
At other prisons, inmates are able to participate in custodial services through vocational programs. That wasn’t possible at Stockton because it had a smaller population of healthy inmates, according to a 2015 budget request.
Gov. Jerry Brown’s administration chose to hire PRIDE for the work rather than hire state workers or provide some kind of hybrid system that would incorporate both PRIDE employees and civil servants. PRIDE went to work in 2016.
SEIU 1000, which represents state custodians, protested the contract. The state human resources department and the prison health care receivership conceded the grievance was valid and agreed to phase out the contract workers.
The PRIDE contract “was out of compliance with state law,” SEIU 1000 lobbyist Ashley Martinez said at a budget hearing this week.
Martinez spoke at a hearing this week to argue for an $8 million budget request that would allow the transition to take place. The union says the state has more than a year to move the jobs from PRIDE to public employees.
"There's a period of time where we can work to make sure everyone (from PRIDE) comes over, and that's what we're working on," Martinez said.
Nelson, three PRIDE employees and several advocates for people with disabilities lobbied for another alternative, such as leaving a role for PRIDE at the prison or giving its employees more time to qualify for state jobs.
Assemblyman Tom Lackey, R-Palmdale, favored keeping the contract with PRIDE. "We have a significant number of people who have proven to be productive and capable, and because of a political takeover, they're going to be unemployed," he said.
The choice is not as clear-cut for Democrats. They favor public sector unions and say they want to support disability rights.
"On the surface it appears to be really simple, but it’s not," said Shirley Weber, D-San Diego. "We all know how difficult it is for people with disabilities to get jobs."
Weber's committee did not commit to a path this week, leaving the decision open for upcoming budget hearings. Assemblyman Reggie Jones-Sawyer, D-Los Angeles, offered to write legislation to find a way to retain the PRIDE employees.
"We need to keep people employed here who have been productive members of our community. I’m frustrated that this seems zero-sum. It’s not," said Assemblyman Mark Stone, D-Scotts Valley.