State workers Friday staged a sickout at the state Department of Motor Vehicles in Santa Ana and picketed at the Fairview Developmental Center in Costa Mesa to protest the state’s proposal to cut their wages.
In what one state union official described as a “wildcat strike,” about 30 of 55 workers at the county’s largest DMV office in Santa Ana called in sick, clogging customer lines and creating waits of more than an hour for motorists seeking license-tag renewals and other services. It was the first apparent job action taken in the 12 years that state DMV workers have been represented in labor negotiations.
At Fairview, several dozen union workers picketed during their lunch breaks outside the Costa Mesa facility. The informational picketing did not affect Fairview’s operations, hospital administrator Hal Britt said.
The sickout appeared to have been coordinated by employees feeling frustrated and angry about a proposed 5% wage cut, an expired labor contract and a recent hike in DMV fees which has drawn the public’s ire, said George M. Swift, southeast area manager for the California State Employees Assn. The group represents about 78,000 workers in ongoing collective-bargaining talks with the state.
“Evidently some workers decided they were sick today,” said Swift, who was surprised when reporters began calling him Friday morning about the strike. “The union did not orchestrate this action. It appears to be a wildcat strike.”
Carol Darby, a psychiatric technician at Fairview, said the state’s proposed pay cut is down from an earlier 20% reduction proposal. But, she said, any plan to slash wages would be unacceptable.
“They’re still asking us to take cuts, and we’re still saying no,” said Darby, chapter president of the California Assn. of Psychiatric Technicians, which is also bargaining with the state.
In addition to the pay cuts, Gov. Pete Wilson has demanded that state employees accept reduced health and dental benefits and possibly mandatory days off. He has said his demands are necessary because he must cut an additional $800 million from the $55.7-billion state budget to keep the state from running a deficit.
But employees say a hiring freeze and an unprecedented number of retirements has left 16,000 jobs vacant and the state with far more savings than Wilson anticipated in his budget.
“This is not a question of balancing the budget, as the governor wants us to believe,” said Pat McConahay, a CSEA spokeswoman in Sacramento. “We think it is a punitive act directed against state employees.”
Workers’ complaints expressed through picketing are expected, but the sickout is an illegal use of sick leave, state labor officials said.
“We are concerned about the sickout and those involved will be asked to verify their illnesses,” said Rick McWilliam, California’s labor relations chief. “We want to assure the taxpayers that (strikers) will not be paid.”
The sickout was staged at one office, state DMV officials said. Supervisors at the Santa Ana agency were referring county residents waiting in line to other offices at Corona, Costa Mesa, Fullerton, Laguna Hills, San Clemente and Westminster.
By 11 a.m., several DMV employees from other branches were arriving to help the Santa Ana employees who showed up for work. Officials said the situation was helped by the fact that business is usually light in DMV offices on Fridays before three-day holidays. People in Santa Ana were being encouraged to drop their paperwork in collection boxes.
“As far as I know, they’re sick,” said one DMV employee in Santa Ana who declined to identify herself. “They all have the same thing.”
Bill Madison, a DMV spokesman in Sacramento, said rumors were circulating about the sickout during the week, and managers of some other offices headed off potential problems by issuing memos warning their employees of the consequences of unauthorized job actions.
He said those found to have been absent without a legitimate excuse would lose a day’s pay and a notation of the incident would be placed in their personnel files.
A CSEA spokeswoman in Sacramento said that most DMV office workers earn between $1,600 to $2,000 per month and can’t afford the kinds of cuts Wilson is demanding.
“These are not enormous salaries, particularly in places like Orange and Los Angeles counties,” McConahay said. “They just can’t take it.”
Complicating matters further was a recent increase in DMV fees by the state, which has made DMV workers the targets of the public’s wrath, Swift said. DMV employees had tried to explain to customers that the state Legislature and the governor were responsible for the higher fees, but the DMV then instructed workers not to respond to the customer complaints, Swift said.
“So these poor people just have to sit there and take it day after day,” Swift said. “With all these things going on, the stress factor at DMV offices has got to be pretty high right now. I can’t blame them. I’d be mad, too.”
Jan Horn of Irvine, in line for a driver’s license renewal, said she was not happy about the delay and did not know the cause but sympathized with the DMV workers.
“They’ve got more than their share of headaches,” Horn said.
Arthur Shim of Norwalk said he had procrastinated in registering his car and it did not pay off.
“Finally, I made it today (Friday) and met up with this,” said Shim, waiting under a midmorning sun with about 65 others. Applicants waited up to an hour just to reach the office door. “You could say it’s a pain,” he added.
On a wall next to the door were signs warning customers of the problem: “Limited service due to excessive employee absence.”
Alice Garcia, office manager at the DMV office in Fullerton, said it was inappropriate for workers to strike before a contract is signed.
“That would be an unfair labor practice, and it could result in adverse consequences for these people,” she said.
George Beams, who has worked as a psychiatric technician at Fairview for 27 years, said a 5% cut would mean a loss of about $150 a month from his paycheck. Carrying a picket sign along Harbor Boulevard, he said he felt like Wilson was trying to “degrade” his profession by asking him to accept a pay cut.
Even if the state agrees to a contract with no pay increase this year, as the unions are requesting, it would amount to a pay cut because taxes and living costs have gone up, said Dr. Frederick Herzig, 59, a picketing staff physician.
“We realize times are tough and we’re willing to give, but we want them to be reasonable,” Herzig said.
Staff writers Doug Shuit, Davan Maharaj, Tom McQueeney and Frank Messina contributed to this story.