City Leaves Positions Vacant, Farms Out Critical Services While San Franciscans Suffer

By Jacob Bourne | Contributing Writer

Over 2,500 San Francisco city workers from various unions, including IFPTE Local 21 and SEIU Local 1021, gathered en masse at City Hall on Wednesday, January 17, to collectively send the message to the City’s administration that they expect critical public services for SF residents to remain public.

Union representatives vocalized the challenges posed by significant vacancy rates among key public safety staff, such as 911 dispatchers, registered nurses, and social workers, and the detrimental impact of outsourcing such services to external private agencies with minimal oversight.

“We’re fighting to protect public services and fix the city that we love,” said SF Office of Labor Standards Enforcement compliance officer Bianca Polovina, who’s also an IFPTE 21 member. “We have a massive understaffing problem that is systemic and deeply ingrained, with a vacancy of over 3,700 funded and permanent positions.”

The gathering was both a demonstration of solidarity and a critique of the City’s fiscal strategy, which dictates hiring expensive private contractors to perform essential services rather than replenishing the essential-service staff within its own workforce that has traditionally done these jobs.

Strike Looms While City Twiddles Its Thumbs

The City’s strategy is the heart of the matter for this collective of over 25,000 dedicated public workers. The urgency of the situation was palpable on January 17, with union leaders and city workers alike expressing their readiness to fight for the betterment of San Francisco — even if that means taking significant action should City Hall continue to ignore their requests.

“We’re tired of the City’s frivolous spending,” said San Francisco Building and Construction Trades Council President Larry Mazzola Jr. “We need to get a livable wage for our public-sector workers and a promise from the City that they are going to backfill our open positions.”

Mazzola said it was corruption that was likely to blame for the excessive contracting-out of work that results in the City spending more than it otherwise would on proper skilled-and-trained public employees.

“We have the right to strike,” Mazzola said. “It’s the last thing we want to do, but if they don’t fix these issues, then it’s a tool in our toolbox we could use if needed.”

Vacancies Abound Among City’s Departments

The public-sector coalition of SF city employees is made up of some 25,000-plus public workers from dozens of unions and is represented by the Public Employee Committee of the San Francisco Labor Council. They’re now entering contract negotiations with the City, as their current agreements are set to expire on June 30. And they’re going in with grievances, thanks to the City’s insistence on chronic understaffing and outsourcing as an apparent manner of course.

The previously mentioned 3,700 permanent positions that the City has allowed to sit vacant span a broad plethora of departments, and they aren’t just a problem for current and would-be public-sector workers. Despite the contracted-out work, SF’s deliberate understaffing has hampered the delivery of essential services such as healthcare, sanitation, and homelessness support at a time when San Franciscans need them the most.

The situation has reached a critical juncture. And now, with city workers’ right to strike having been affirmed by the California Public Employment Relations Board last July, those workers can withhold their labor without having to worry that they’ll be fired for it.

City Swoons for Expensive Contractors, Gives Its Workers the Shaft

The involved unions are advocating for a shift in the City’s budgetary priorities. They’re urging a reduction in spending on private contractors, which they argue is wasteful and detracts from an investment that could instead be made in full-time city staff.

The City’s current fiscal practices reveal a concerning trend: Less than 6% of SF’s budget cuts affect outside contractors, while substantially higher cuts are made to vacant city positions. This, in turn, exacerbates the understaffing crisis.

Further, the unions contend that the City’s expenditure on contracts — averaging $5.2 billion annually — predominantly benefits contractors without local ties, further emphasizing the economic inefficiencies of outsourcing jobs that could be more cost-effectively filled by local city workers.

“We need to stop the massive outsourcing that’s happening,” labor standards compliance officer Polovina said. “94% of the total dollars contracted out are going to private contractors who don’t have any roots in our city.

“We love our city and we’re asking for the tools, recognition, and resources necessary to continue doing excellent work for the public,” they said.

City workers will be articulating these demands in the streets. The January 17 rally served as a prelude to another large rally that took place at SF General Hospital on Friday, February 16. More demonstrations are likely until the issue is resolved.

Stay tuned.

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