S.D. Zoo, Workers Stalled in Talks on New Contract

San Diego County Business Editor

While the San Diego Zoo publicly promotes its 70th birthday with a high-profile marketing campaign, management and workers are privately locked in tense contract negotiations over demands for pay cuts, random drug testing and co-payment of health benefits.

Labor and management are so far from agreement that last week a state mediator took over the 2-month-old contract talks between the Zoological Society of San Diego and Teamsters Union Local 481, which represents 922 of the society’s 1,289 workers.

The union’s three-year contract, which expires June 30, covers keepers, maintenance workers, groundspeople, tour guides and security guards at both the San Diego Zoo in Balboa Park and the Wild Animal Park in North San Diego County.

The state mediator, David Hart, will attend his second negotiating session today. He could not be reached for comment Thursday, but zoo sources said that the two sides are “miles apart” because of demands by management for worker pay cuts.


Management, faced with mounting operating deficits, is “asking for rollbacks across the board,” said one source familiar with the negotiations.

Management also has proposed random drug testing of workers because it would cut liability insurance costs, according to another source.

In addition, society officials are asking workers to shoulder about one-third of the $215 the society pays for each employee’s annual health benefits, according to one zoo worker. The society currently pays the entire amount.

Challenge Salary Cuts


“Tensions are pretty high,” said one zoo worker. “People are not convinced that cutting salaries is the appropriate way to make up for deficits.”

Echoed another worker: “Why should union people pay for management’s mistakes?”

The Zoological Society reported a $500,000 combined operating deficit in 1985. Although the zoo generated a $1.1-million operating surplus, the Wild Animal Park spent $1.6 million more than it took in.

The giant North County park has reported operating deficits in 13 of its 14 years, according to spokesman Jeff Jouett.


Park expenses outpaced income primarily because of an 8.4% drop in attendance, to 1.1 million. Crowd count in 1984 dropped 14%.

At year-end 1985, the society had an accumulated operating deficit of $3.2 million, stemming from a $21.4-million deficit from the Wild Animal Park and an $18.2-million operating surplus from the zoo.

That means that the Wild Animal Park has lost more in its 14-year history than the zoo has made since it opened 70 years ago.

Special Fund


Operating fund deficits are offset from a special depreciation fund set aside for replacement of property and equipment, said Jouett.

Private fund-raising efforts are set aside for capital improvements at the zoo and Wild Animal Park, and aren’t used to offset operating deficits. “They’re kept entirely separate from operating revenues and expenditures,” said Jouett.

Neither society nor union officials would comment on details of the ongoing negotiations.

Reading a prepared statement, Jouett said society officials “have every expectation of reaching an agreement” with union representatives


Mid-June Deadline

Teamsters Union officials would not comment on the talks.

The union has given management until mid-June to present a final offer so that union members have time to vote on the proposal before the contract expires, according to sources familiar with the talks.

The two sides have been in negotiations since April 24, meeting at least twice a week in recent weeks, sources said. New talks are scheduled only at the conclusion of each meeting, according to the sources.


As it has for the past 30 years, society management is represented by Tom Puffer, head of the San Diego Employers Assn., a non-profit industrial and personnel relations firm with 1,700 members.

Employees have walked off their jobs only once since zoo workers unionized 24 years ago. But the strike in 1965 ended after only a two-day work stoppage.