Press Democrat - An inconvenient truth: Some county workers need public assistance

Check out this Santa Rosa Press Democrat piece by Sonoma County worker Cindy MacDonell. Cindy breaks down the economic reality of working for the County and explains why so many of her colleagues are forced to rely on charity and public assistance.   

Close to Home: An inconvenient truth: Some county workers need public assistance

The Santa Rosa Press Democrat, October 30, 2015

There is currently an impassioned debate taking place — sometimes on the pages of this newspaper — over the roles and needs of Sonoma County’s public employees. Are we necessary? Are we overpaid? Do we help or hurt the county?

As one of these workers, I wanted to take a minute to clear up a few of these points. First, unless you prefer impassable roads, dirty parks, neglected children with no place to go and no cavalry coming in the case of an emergency, we are necessary.

People sometimes make the mistake of assuming that public employees are a nice-to-have, nonessential perk that exists, much like your gardener or florist, to improve your quality of life. Not true. Government services are a necessity, and my colleagues and I are proud to do the important work that keeps this county moving.

Second: Are we overpaid? As wages remain stagnant and health care costs skyrocket, a significant number of Sonoma County workers rely on public assistance to afford to take care of their children and to eat. So no, we are not overpaid. We are the largest workforce in Sonoma County, yet we can’t afford to live here.

This is not just about us; it’s also about the local economy.

To help the public understand this, I’ll use the case of one of my colleagues but change her name to protect her privacy. “Maria” works in the county accounting department. She looks at all the bills that contractors send in for performing work on the county’s behalf and makes sure that they are accurate and processes them for payment. She has done this essential but unglamorous work for more than a decade.

Maria is a full-time worker who takes home $1,200 every two weeks. She is a single mom renting a very modest one-bedroom apartment, with no real chance of ever saving enough to buy a house in our area. Over the past couple of years, her rent has increased to about $1,100 a month. The county health plan is so expensive that she can’t afford to cover her son. After paying for her utilities and saving for retirement, she is left with very little for groceries, gas and other essentials. She is one car repair or minor illness away from financial ruin.

When the recession hit in 2008, all county workers, including Maria, agreed to pay reductions to keep the county afloat. And over the past seven years, the cost of living has increased and area rents have gone up as much as 40 percent. People she works with have visited food pantries, taken a second job, downgraded living accommodations or taken on roommates, and even applied for food stamps, to get by.

Maria obviously isn’t getting rich doing this work. In fact, one more rent increase would mean losing her apartment. I don’t think anyone would suggest that the county should automatically pay bills that come in without conducting some measure of quality assurance. So workers like Maria are necessary, and they are also being pushed to the brink of poverty.

This year, despite county revenues increasing significantly as the economy recovered and real estate prices soared, the Board of Supervisors recommended a zero percent wage increase for Maria and her colleagues followed by a 1 percent increase next year. (This would be part of a proposed new labor agreement to replace one that expires Saturday.) But we have been pushed too far. When civil workers are on public assistance, it’s time for Sonoma County residents to demand that our elected leaders prioritize people like Maria.

If you agree, please go to www.StandUpSonomaCounty.org where you can find out how to help. County workers like myself and Maria are proud to be there when our neighbors need our help — and now we’re asking you to be there for us.

Cindy McDonell works at the Sonoma County Department of Health Services. She has worked for the county since 2003. She lives in Petaluma.