Hemet city workers ask for raises after 14 years

Emma Johnson, left, and her mother Karen Johnson speak on behalf of Hemet city workers who are members of the Service Employees International Union, Local 721, and seek raises after 14 years. Valley News/Diane A. Rhodes photo

More than half of Hemet’s city employees appeared at the Tuesday, Nov. 10, city council meeting to plead for a wage increase. Workers, who are members of the Service Employees International Union, Local 721, have not had a cost of living adjustment since 2006. Now more than ever, with many having to do double or triple duty due to pandemic-related layoffs, employees said they are feeling frustrated and unappreciated.

Due to COVID-19 restrictions, in-person participation is limited inside the council chamber and the building’s lobby to maintain required social distancing. While about a dozen union members chose to make public comments, limited to two minutes each, many others gathered around a computer tablet set up on a truck’s tailgate in the parking lot to watch the proceedings.

Speeches were met with cheers and applause from the crowd that could be heard inside the building as each speaker shared their personal reasons for wanting to draft a fair contract. Eloy Alvarez, SEIU regional director, said the union has reached out to the city in the past without securing raises for its approximately 85 employees.

“Measure U was originally intended for police services, fire services and general city services,” he said. “Before the city of Hemet residents voted on Measure U (in 2016), city council decided to pass a resolution to modify the use of those funds to be strictly utilized for fire and police services.”

Two council members voted against the resolution but it was passed, and revenue from a 1% sales tax increase was designated to fund public safety departments only.

“I want to acknowledge that public safety is important to the city of Hemet and police service and fire service are important to the residents, but these are not the only services that are important to the city of Hemet,” Alvarez said. “For 13 years, you have asked these employees to sacrifice, to forgo raises, while the cost of living continues to go up. We are willing to work with anyone within the city of Hemet who is willing to work with SEIU to reach a mutually beneficial solution to this problem. Take care of your employees, take care of your community.”

Steven Feldman has been an equipment maintenance mechanic for the city since 2016. He said he’s been a proud citizen of Hemet for about 10 years and he loves his job.

“As you are aware, we don’t earn the same wages as our industry’s standards,” he told the council. “Myself and our entire equipment maintenance team have to supply our own tools to perform what I consider to be a huge role of public safety, along with all my brothers and sisters that are standing outside. As our medical (expenses) continue to rise and the cost of living goes up, we have failed to see a pay raise in 14 years. In addition, we have also taken pay cuts in order to save city functions such as the library.”

Feldman said that city employees have done everything in their power to keep the city afloat through all the changes.

“We have waited patiently, and it’s now our turn for a raise and for the city to show us that we are worth it,” he said.

Hemet city employees, who could not watch in person as fellow union members spoke at the Tuesday, Nov. 10, city council meeting, gather to watch the proceedings on a computer set up in the parking lot. Valley News/Diane A. Rhodes photo
Eric Pelkey pleads with Hemet City Council members to support city workers with a fair contract that provides raises that have not happened in 14 years. Valley News/Diane A. Rhodes photo
About 60% of Hemet’s city employees show up to support members who chose to speak at the Hemet City Council meeting. The union workers have not had any pay increases since 2006 and are seeking a new and fair contract. Valley News/Service Employees International Union, Local 721 photo

Donald Kay has worked at the city’s water and sewer services for 20 years and said that he is sometimes tasked with doing things outside his normal job because of cuts that were made.

“In the last several years, as positions are frozen or eliminated and departments are downsized, additional work is put on the remaining workers in all departments,” he told the council members. “With added duties and a dwindling labor force, things will be neglected. This means less workers but more work and on top of all this, public workers have not had an increase in pay in 14 years. Middle and upper management got their increases – I think it’s our turn. All we want is a fair contract. Show the men and women that keep this city running every day they should get what they deserve.”

Yajaira Howard lives in Perris but works in Hemet’s water department. She encouraged the city council to invest in its workers the same way their invest their time and effort into their jobs.

Andrea Jacomet celebrated 29 years as a city employee Oct. 15, working at the Hemet Public Library.

“These SEIU members that you see here today have more contact with the residents of Hemet than the police, the fire, city manager and yourselves,” she told the council members. “We have watched department heads, city managers and city council members come and go and at the end of the day, we are still here serving our city. Please do the right thing by us – be the first city council in 14 years to give us a fair contract.”

Eric Pelkey also works at the Hemet Public Library. He said that being an older adult helps him to realize how the pay workers receive throughout their careers will affect their retirement.

“These younger people need to be supported,” he said.

Gregory Meeh said workers have been encouraged to do more work, but giving them 10% more for additional duties while expecting 200% more effort isn’t feasible.

Emma Johnson is a student at the Western Center Academy and spoke on behalf of her mother, who has worked for the city for almost 16 years.

“She’s been a single mom my entire life,” Johnson said. “She is working without a contract, fighting stalled negotiations along with her co-workers and raising me on a salary that hasn’t been adjusted since 2006.”

She asked the council members how residents can be paying more in taxes, while the crime and homelessness rates are increasing and nothing is improving. She questioned where the tax money was being spent.

“How is it that the city cannot afford to give my mother a raise, yet upper management receives increases over and over again?” she asked. “How is it that the city cannot afford to give my mother a raise, yet there are $11 million that were supposed to be used for the general fund being used exclusively for police and fire? You have the money and the resources to do justice by these people, these people who keep your city running.”

Karen Johnson followed her daughter to the microphone to share her story.

“Due to pay cuts, we (the SEIU workers) have taken on covering more and more of our benefits out of our paychecks,” she said. “We have to cover a portion of our health care and a portion of our retirement. I pay $420 of my health care and $300 of my retirement each month. That’s $8,400 a year I pay for my benefits.”

She said she feels that benefits are something you earn, something that is given to you – not something you pay for yourself.

“My taxes go up, cost of living goes up every year and I’ve gone 14 years without a raise,” Karen Johnson said. “It’s time for the city to do the right thing. It’s time for a fair contract.”