During the strike, large groups of workers gathered at various high traffic areas throughout Yreka to make their numbers and message visible to the community.

Steve Allen, the lead labor negotiator representing the Organized Employees of Siskiyou County in their ongoing fight for a “fair contract” with the County of Siskiyou, said Monday he was waiting to hear back from county representatives regarding whether they want to meet to discuss the status of the negotiation and potential next steps.

This follows a five day strike OESC engaged in last week. During the strike, large groups of workers gathered at various high traffic areas throughout Yreka to make their numbers and message visible to the community.

OESC packed the Siskiyou County Board of Supervisors’ chambers on Jan. 7 and a handful of the employees chose to speak during the public comment period.

Diane Olson, administrative services manager for Siskiyou County Human Services, told the board that “whittling away” at the county employees’ benefits packages will lead to extreme difficulty recruiting and retaining employees.

“I have no problem with taking on more duties and working 10 to 12 hours a day but I do not expect to do it on a frozen wage or fewer benefits. And if I do not expect to do it, I absolutely cannot expect my employees to do it either,” Olson conveyed to the board.

She added, “I have extremely dedicated employees who have taken on the challenge of more with less. But I can’t get on board with taking value or benefits away from them for doing so.”

Olson reported that some workers at Siskiyou County Human Services have taken on caseloads upwards of 900 per worker, while the average caseload for such employees throughout California is 400. Such a workload cannot be sustained, she said. “By taking away from our employees, we are creating a morale issue that is also creating a retention issue,” she told the supervisors.

“For the health of Siskiyou County, it’s imperative that you show these employees they’re valued,” she urged the board. Olsen’s comments were followed by uproarious applause and cheers from the crowd.

Mount Shasta resident Bruce Hillman also spoke up for the employees. Though he is not employed by the County of Siskiyou himself, Hillman noted that he was “on the picket line” earlier that morning with the striking employees, which gave him a chance to hear some of their stories. Many OESC members have had to take on multiple jobs as the result of low wages and lacking benefits, he said.

Hillman urged the board to “stop spending money on extravagant salaries for administrators” and to put more money toward the employees who make up the majority of the County of Siskiyou’s workforce. “There’s an election coming up and if you want to be reelected I think it’s important you start supporting your county workers,” he added.

The board also heard from Siskiyou County Eligibility Worker Sadie Gorseth, who was candid about her struggle to make ends meet as a single mother of three.

Gorseth related that in addition to her employment with the county, she also works as a cosmetologist and a caregiver. Still, she said she has received public assistance for the past 18 years. “I want my children to say, ‘Wow, the county really took care of my mom so my mom could take care of us,’” Gorseth expressed, adding, “I want to help my clients get off assistance just like I want to.”

And as many County of Siskiyou employees have pointed out, it is not uncommon for OESC employees to qualify for such assistance. Siskiyou County WIC Director Dana Kent noted outside the meeting that many employees in her department qualify for the same assistance they’re helping provide to low income women.

Siskiyou County Associate Planner Rachel Jereb, who was also on strike last week, chose to read from the 2018/2019 Siskiyou Civil Grand Jury report to illustrate her point to the board of supervisors.

She quoted from the report, “Employee turnover has been an issue in the Community Development Department as a whole and has had a particularly large impact in the Planning Department. The problem is most noticeable among department heads and skilled positions where it is common for employees to leave after just a year or two of service. These positions often remain vacant for months. This turnover has caused a loss in morale and productivity for many years.

“The Grand Jury recommends that the pay and benefits packages for these positions be reviewed and made more competitive.” Jereb concluded, “I think that pretty much says it all. That is why I’m on strike.”

Lifetime Siskiyou County resident Suzanne Hogue also felt moved to address the board Jan. 7, though she said she hadn’t planned on it. Hogue has worked within the county’s child protective services department for 24 years. “I was here when we were told ‘take a pay cut or people will be laid off,’” she said, alluding to an alleged budget crisis the County of Siskiyou faced approximately eight years ago. The county promised OESC workers they’d see that money come back to them in the form of raises at a later date, Hogue said, but that has yet to happen.

“All we’re asking for is to be treated fairly ... To feel like I’m going to retire with no approval from you guys and no respect – it hurts. And it’s sad. And I want these people who are going to be here after I’m gone to feel respected and cared for. We hope you’ll reconsider and give us the fairness we deserve,” she told the board.

Allen was last to speak on the matter, noting that OESC’s negotiators have “always been willing to talk with the county and try to put a deal together.” He stated that his team was “absolutely willing to reengage” with the county through direct conversations and that he believed the labor negotiation was “deserving of a revisit by both sides.”

Allen said he would reach out to the County’s legal representative this week. “I don’t want this to tail away and start bargaining for another year, because this will fester,” he described to the supervisors, adding, “We want to talk, we will talk, we’ll make an effort and hopefully that will produce a contract.” “OESC is the heart and soul of this community and I’m proud to represent them,” he expressed.

A handful of OESC employees spoke to the Siskiyou Daily News during their strike Friday. They agreed that community support for the strike seemed high; they estimated that 90 percent of the community was in favor of the strike. “Thank you to the community and businesses for their support,” Labor Negotiator Matt Rokes said. “We’ve had really good community support. It’s been really nice,” said Siskiyou County Public Authority Administrator and Bella Art Works co-owner Talya Nicholson.

Rokes and Siskiyou County Senior Deputy Ag Commissioner Jodi Aceves explained that OESC was formed after a lot of work so that County of Siskiyou workers could have their own group and not pay dues to a state labor union that wasn’t providing them with much representation. The idea behind OESC was that it would be Siskiyou County employees helping other Siskiyou County employees, Aceves explained.

Additionally, she and Rokes said, the union that previously represented the workers was radical and nationalized, and the union rep was litigious. “We wanted a more harmonious relationship with the county and the board of supervisors,” Rokes said.

In 2012, Rokes detailed, OESC agreed to take a pay cut in order to help the county avoid layoffs. But those layoffs happened anyway, he said. Meanwhile, he added, “the person managing this whole nightmare gets paid a king’s wages,” referring to Siskiyou County Administrative Officer Terry Barber, whose total pay and benefits package increased from $214,312.70 in 2017 to $244,417.20 in 2018, according to Transparent California.

That raise has raised a lot of eyebrows and suspicion amongst OESC workers. As of press time, Barber had not returned a request for comment. District 3 Supervisor Michael Kobseff said Monday that he is unable to comment on the situation with OESC as it involves an ongoing negotiation.