About a quarter of the workers represented by Palo Alto's largest labor union called in sick Tuesday in what city leaders believe could be a disruptive negotiation tactic.
The 151 workers who didn't show up for work are represented by the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) Local 521, a labor union that has spent the past four months in rancorous negotiations with the city over a new contract. The union represents machine operators, librarians, street pavers, planners, utilities workers, and park-maintenance workers, among others.
City Manager James Keene said in a Tuesday news release that the city expected to continue its operations with slight reductions in service levels. The city's statement refers to "rumors late last week that SEIU employees were planning a coordinated effort in which large numbers of employees all call in sick on a certain day."
"The city is prepared for potential events involving widespread employee absences and departments were ready to handle this possibility," the news release states. "The City asked SEIU leadership to renounce some actions and urge its members not to participate in such actions while negotiations are still underway."
Jerry Jimenez, the chapter's communication specialist, said the union doesn't organize sick days and had nothing to do with workers not coming in to work Tuesday. Lynn Krug, chapter chair, said in an e-mail that neither chapter leadership nor the negotiating team endorsed the sick day.
"It is the beginning of flu season, and I can only guess that the individual employees may have become ill from the stress of the City of Palo Alto contract negotiation," Krug wrote.
Because of the staffing shortage, the city had fewer workers in the Development Center and in city parks. The Utilities Customer Service Center was closed throughout the day, and walk-in customers were directed to City Hall for assistance. Routine road repairs were halted, as was routine utility maintenance.
The negotiations between the city and the union are taking place at a time of plummeting city revenues and program cuts. The city's revenues from sales taxes, hotel taxes and document-transfer taxes have all been dropping even as its infrastructure-repair backlog and payments for retiree health care have been rising. Keene has said he expects to see a budget gap of $10 million to $12 million in the current fiscal year, which ends June 30.
Keene told the Weekly that city officials will remain committed to making sure the city continues to operate without interruptions. He said Tuesday's sick day will not deter the city's negotiating team from seeking a reasonable compromise with the union.
"It's always unfortunate when you have events like today but that doesn't change our determination to reach a contract that works well for both parties," Keene said. "We will continue to do everything we can to reach an agreement."
The city and the union have deadlocked over the city's proposal to change the pension formula and to require workers to make contributions toward their medical payments. Last month, 95 percent of the voting union members voted to authorize a strike if the city doesn't relax some of its demands. According to the city, a strike could start as early as Sept. 15, but Krug said no date has been set.
"We are in extremely challenging economic times," Director of Human Resources Russ Carlsen said in the city's prepared statement. "The City negotiating team continues to work diligently toward meeting the city's financial responsibilities to the community while also respecting and valuing the important work performed by our dedicated employees."
Keene said the city's police, fire and emergency services would continue to operate as usual Tuesday and said the city "is committed to protecting the health and safety of the community and its employees during this time."
"We appreciate the efforts of all employees who are at work today and those employees who are stepping up to fill in the service gaps to ensure that essential functions will be maintained," Keene said in the statement.
Councilman Pat Burt said that even if the union leaders weren't previously aware of the planned sick day, they were made aware of it and did nothing to prevent it. Burt said he was concerned the union could harm itself by damaging its own credibility.
Burt also pointed to a flier the SEIU circulated last month accusing the city of "stashing" millions of dollars in reserve funds and running a "shell game." The flier attributes the quotes to the Palo Alto Weekly and the San Jose Mercury News, respectively. However, the quotes came directly from the union's own website; both newspapers merely used the quotes to describe the content on the union's website, and both clearly attributed the comments to the union.
"I'm worried some of these tactics are going to undermine the community's support and respect for what is really a good workforce," Burt said. "They're harming themselves by these tactics."