SAN JOSE, Calif. (CN) — Approximately 400 employees of the Santa Clara County Superior Court continued to strike Thursday, refusing to go to work and choosing instead to picket outside the Hall of Justice.
The members of the Superior Court Professional Employees Association, which represents the clerks and janitorial workers, authorized a strike after negotiations broke down with the court administration last week.
“We have to pay for our medical plans now, contribute to PERS (the retirement system) and we haven’t gotten a raise in eight years, which means all of us are paying more than we were eight years ago,” union president Ingrid Stewart said.
On top of protesting the lack of pay increases, the union says working conditions are poor, particularly as a 40 percent attrition rate has left many court departments substantially understaffed.
“It’s not just about wages,” Carla Sprugasci, a court specialist with family court, said. “The public is not being served. There is a backlog because we are so understaffed and some people are waiting on judgments for months.”
Carrying signs that read “8yrs no Cola or Justice” and “Balance the Scale or the Court Will Fail,” hundreds of court workers marched in a circle in front of the Hall of Justice.
“I believe we are the heartbeat of the court,” said Anna Sapp, a coordinator at Santa Clara County Drug Court. “We’ve agreed to take no pay today and we are sacrificing together and we are willing to do this as long as it takes.”
Sapp said she rents a three-bedroom house in Santa Clara and is forced to sub-let two of the rooms to strangers, with her children sharing one of the rooms while she lives in the garage. Without a raise, Sapp said she will consider moving elsewhere.
Stewart said Sapp’s living arrangement is a common affliction in Santa Clara County, where people with moderate and low incomes struggle mightily to find housing.
An experienced clerk can make an annual salary of $70,000, but most of them make $55,000 or less per year according to California State Controller’s website. Rent in Santa Clara County is one of the highest in the nation. The average one-bedroom apartment in Santa Clara rents for $2,600 a month, while a two-bedroom goes for $3,000.
The rental rates mean the average clerk pays well over 50 percent of their monthly salary to live in the county in which they work.
“We have people who spend three to six hours in the car per day, just to come to work,” Sapp said.
Stewart said one person in her union is currently homeless and that several couch-surf just to be able to piece it together.
While many are upset at the housing affordability crisis, still other say the court’s upper management has engaged in frivolous spending, prioritizing luxury furniture and Italian marble for the newly minted $200 million family court facility.
“There are couches in that building that cost $5,000,” Stewart said.
Stewart sharply criticized court CEO David Yamasaki for not rehiring many of the workers who either left or retired after the initial budget crunch during the Great Recession.
“Meanwhile, he is making about $324,000 a year and his main house is in San Diego,” Stewart said.
According to the State Controller website, Yamasaki makes about $240,000 in salary. However, his retirement and health benefits cost the taxpayer $81,000 for a total of roughly $320,000.
Yamasaki and other administrative officials at the Santa Clara Superior Court did not return multiple requests for comment.
The current negotiations between the union and the court administration have been ongoing for two years and four months, according to Stewart.
According to reports, court administration offered workers with six years experience or more a net salary increase of 5 percent over two years, but the union turned the offer down. The union demanded a cost of living increase built into the second year of the two-year contract.
According to the state controller’s office, average wages at the Santa Clara Superior Court are the fifth highest in the state, behind only the courthouses in San Francisco, Los Angeles, Plumas and Sierra counties.
The strike meant that most of the clerical services typically available at the downtown San Jose courthouse were shuttered.
According to a statement released by the court late Wednesday, all divisions are hearing cases on a limited basis and jury selection is continuing in most criminal cases.
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