Rallying in support of better wages, dozens of Santa Barbara public employees marched during their lunch hour yesterday demanding their pay match the cost of living for the area.

Clad in purple T-shirts, Service Employees International Union members from the Local 620 division marched before the Santa Barbara County Administration building on East Anapamu Street. Demonstrators carried signs bearing slogans such as “The County of Santa Barbara Works Because We Do!” and chanted their demand for higher wages. The rally took place from noon until about 1 p.m.

The SEI Union represents public employees in sectors ranging from Public Health Services and Flood Control to the Transportation Dept., and it has recently entered into negotiations with Santa Barbara County after its original contract expired on Sunday.

Several short speeches by union representatives and supporters followed and were succeeded by a march through the ground floor of the administration building.

Union leaders said they were pleased with the turnout, and noted that it was three times larger than they expected.

The major complaint voiced by speakers and demonstrators was that public employees currently receive insufficient compensation for their services.

Scott Hunter Quinn, an SEIU 620 member working as a child support officer, said compensation and recognition from the city for many public employees is long overdue.

According to Quinn, services such as public health, child support and road services are often overlooked by the county supervisors. He said the county supervisors have routinely used budget shortfalls as an excuse to stonewall attempts at increasing the cost of living wages.

Quinn said that although workers from services such as the sheriff’s and fire departments. have received significant wage increases, other public employees were left out and most could no longer afford to live in the communities in which they worked.

“SEIU has been the county’s red-headed stepchild for years,” Quinn said. “We get no respect from them. Now we’re standing up to say something about it. Three years ago, we had 20 contract bargaining members. Now we have over 100. It just shows you how fed up people really are.”

Sara Scofield, a member of the bargaining team and a caseworker for the Alcohol, Drug & Mental Health Services, said that low wages and limited benefits have made it difficult to attract workers to the public sector.

“Public employees are some of the hardest workers I know,” Scofield said. “But it’s hard to attract and retain these workers, especially when neighboring counties have so much more to offer, especially in terms of retirement benefits.”

Over half of the employees in his office could not afford to live in the Santa Barbara area, Quinn said.
Santa Barbara Transportations Services employee Eddie Villarreal said the high cost of living prevented his family from living in Santa Barbara County. Consequently, he said he must commute 51 miles from Lompoc to work every morning, a trip that takes him about an hour each way, depending on traffic.

“I think we deserve a better contract,” Villarreal said. “We don’t want to be millionaires, we just want recognition and a fair wage.”

County officials declined to comment on the demonstration or the contract, pending ongoing negotiations.

According to a press release, SEIU 620 is the largest and fastest growing union in the Central Coast. It is part of a national organization, representing public employees from Carpinteria to Paso Robles. The organization represents clerical and professional employees as well as healthcare and social workers, maintenance workers, road crews and airport officers.