Santa Clara County plans to slash hundreds of vacant positions, a move union leaders said would exacerbate existing staffing issues.
County officials want to eliminate about 650 vacant roles out of roughly 3,500 total vacancies to help offset a projected budget deficit of $120 million. Funds would be reallocated elsewhere in the proposed 2023-24 budget.
County Executive Jeff Smith said current workers shouldn't be affected, with leaders looking at roles across multiple departments that have remained vacant for more than 18 months.
"The reality is that we're no longer in a financially flush environment," Smith told San Jose Spotlight. "We have to find ways to cut money without decreasing services and without impacting our employees."
Riko Mendez, chief elected officer with SEIU 521, said decreasing vacancies fails to address chronic understaffing that's already overburdening existing workers. He added the loss of county roles means vulnerable residents lose access and help with obtaining resources. SEIU 521 is the county's largest union, representing more than 12,000 employees including janitors, health care workers, social workers and more, he said.
"Every single (one) of those vacancies, that is a human being that if that vacancy was filled, would be badging in every single day and providing services to the community," Mendez told San Jose Spotlight.
Vacancies have plagued Santa Clara County for years. Mental health professionals across county agencies and health care workers in county-operated Santa Clara Valley Medical Center (VMC) have described depleted staffing levels, resulting in impacts like longer wait times for emergency room patients. A 2022 survey revealed about 69% of county-employed doctors at VMC plan to leave their jobs in the next three years.
Mendez said eliminating roles could hobble departments that are already stretched thin. He said a health care worker broke down crying in a conversation with him, describing a situation where a pregnant mother was saved because there happened to be enough staff on that particular day.
"That really drove the life or death nature of these decisions home to me," he said.
Worker's rights attorney and San Jose Spotlight columnist Ruth Silver Taube said governments statewide are dealing with worker shortages, but eliminating vacancies isn't the answer. Silver Taube said low pay, lack of housing and intense responsibilities are all critical factors that need addressing.
"(Vacancies) plague a lot of public agencies," Silver Taube told San Jose Spotlight. "It looks good on paper that they have fewer vacancies because they deleted them, and that is the wrong approach. They need to fill those vacancies because the workload is what's driving people away."
The county isn't alone in its understaffing troubles. San Jose government workers protested last year for better pay, citing demanding workloads in light of hundreds of unfilled positions. Longstanding vacancies in the planning department have led to significant delays in permit processing, which small business owners said push entrepreneurs to open businesses in other cities.
Silver Taube said there are people who want to work in public service and contribute in government roles, but agencies need to streamline their hiring processes to attract these individuals.
Mendez said the county needs to invest in its workers and services now more than ever. He said workers are struggling to do their jobs and also dealing with post-pandemic mental health effects.
"When the desperate times called upon us to be disaster service workers and lean into the fact that we work for a government agency, we did our part," Mendez said. "Now's the time to look at the numbers, outside of the box."
This story, from Bay City News Service, was originally published by San Jose Spotlight.