State workers Friday staged a daylong sickout at the Department of Motor Vehicles office in Santa Ana, and workers picketed 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 called in sick at the Santa Ana DMV office, Orange County’s largest. The job action resulted in clogged customer phone lines and waits of more than an hour for motorists seeking registration renewals and other services. It was the first job action taken in the 12 years that state DMV workers have been represented in labor negotiations.
The sickout targeted only the Santa Ana office, but smaller protests have been staged throughout the state for weeks. Meanwhile, rumors were circulating Friday that more job actions may be staged next week.
Employees at the DMV office in Ventura remained on the job Friday, but a union steward reported that about three-fourths indicated a willingness to strike when an extension of the union contract expires at the end of September.
“We’re all on standby, ready to strike,” said Maria Arana, a DMV field representative and shop steward for the public employees union. “Everybody is uptight and nervous,” she said of the Ventura workers.
At Fairview Developmental Center in Costa Mesa, 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 frustrated and angry about a proposed 5% wage cut, an expired labor contract and a recent hike in DMV fees that has drawn the public’s ire, said George M. Swift, southeast area manager for the California State Employees Assn. The association 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 job action. “The union did not orchestrate this action. It appears to be a wildcat strike.”
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 such moves 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 have left 16,000 jobs vacant and the state with far more savings than Wilson anticipated.
“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 picketings 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 isolated to the Santa Ana office, state DMV officials said. Supervisors in Santa Ana were referring county residents to offices in Corona, Costa Mesa, Fullerton, Laguna Hills, San Clemente and Westminster.
By 11 a.m., several DMV employees from other branches had arrived to help the 10 Santa Ana workers 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.
“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 most DMV office workers earn between $1,600 and $2,000 a month and cannot 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 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.