Lorrie Sargent will lose her job with the city next month along with nearly 500 other public health employees, including the department’s entire administrative clerical staff. She may get a chance to be hired back into a lower-paid position, according to the city, but Sargent said that would put her on the edge of the poverty line.
“The internet, cell phone, all those little things that normal people have, I’ll have to let go, because I won’t be able to maintain the bills,” Sargent said at a meeting with other frustrated workers facing impending layoffs. “All of us live check to check. We literally need the same amount we’re making just to get by.”
The layoffs come at a tumultuous time for the Department of Public Health. They were made in response to this year’s $43 million budget cut.
To make matters worse, the Mayor Gavin Newsom told the Board of Supervisors on Friday that the state’s budget situation will mean another $26.5 million cut in state funding to city health and human services programs.
Not all the employees facing layoffs will wind up unemployed. If they have enough seniority, they can displace lower-ranked workers who occupy similar job categories, said Mary Hao, a spokeswoman for the Department of Human Resources. But that means the workers getting displaced would be out of a job. Some of the recently laid-off workers will also be asked to resume their previous job responsibilities, but at lower pay.
Hao said that means a pay cut of about $10,000 per year for top clerks, many of whom would be assigned to city departments unrelated to health care. Workers scheduled to be laid off said they’re feeling the pinch.
“When I got this promotion, I had been saving, and I went out and bought a house,” said Jon Blackner, a clerk charged with making sure public health complies with federal and state laws. “Now I’m barely able to make my mortgage payments. It took me by surprise.”
Blackner said all the cutbacks could cause problems preparing for yearly federal audits, which could lead to fines or lawsuits in the future. He also said they are unfair, since the majority of those losing their jobs are women and minorities.
Patricia Walsh, a clerk that works for the director of mental health, said the layoffs could have been avoided, since workers were willing to make concessions. But she said her union, SEIU 1021, never stepped up to the plate during negotiations with the city.
“We were willing to take more furlough days, we were willing to take shortened hours every week,” Walsh said. “I asked the union what [Director of Public Health] Mitchell Katz wanted, and they blew me off and wouldn’t talk to me.”
A spokesman for the union said workers already gave up about $38 million in salary and benefits in June with an understanding that Newsom would find alternatives to mass layoffs.
“Instead, he’s decided to cut public health and cut public health drastically,” said Carlos Rivera for SEIU 1021. “Mayor Newsom said he would work on saving jobs but didn’t come through and hasn’t seen union officials since.”
Rivera told Mission Loc@l that the city has refused to meet with SEIU representatives to reopen contract negotiations, saying that “the mayor has been unresponsive.”
But Mary Hao, a spokeswoman for the Department of Human Resources, said that is untrue.
“We’ve been having weekly meetings for the past two or three weeks with SEIU leadership,” Hao said. “We share data with SEIU extensively, and we sit down and go through each person getting laid off and what’s going to happen to them. I’m not aware of any efforts on their part to reopen the contract to offer more concessions.”
The quarrel between the union and the mayor hit a boiling point on September 28, when an SEIU member handed Newsom a flier demanding he put a stop to layoffs. According to a recent San Francisco Bay Guardian article, Newsom responded with an outburst. “This is a lie. I don’t want to do anything to deal with the union,” Newsom is quoted as saying. “I hate Robert [SEIU organizer Robert Haaland]. What you’re doing now is hurting me.”
Meanwhile, workers say they are at the end of their line, and moral is terrible given their uncertain future.
“We’re being dehumanized and treated disrespectfully,” said Sargent disconcertedly. “I’m a single female making less than men, and I’m paying the rent that San Francisco allots, which is about a check and a quarter. It’s ridiculous. You can barely make it.”