The union was angered by Santa Clara County’s plan to cut vacancies

Santa Clara County plans to cut hundreds of job vacancies, a move union leaders said would exacerbate existing staffing problems.

County officials want to eliminate about 650 job vacancies out of a total of about 3,500 vacancies to help offset the projected $120 million budget shortfall. Funds will be reallocated elsewhere in the 2023-24 proposed budget.
County Executive Jeff Smith said existing workers should not be affected, as leaders look for roles across multiple departments that have been vacant for more than 18 months.
“The reality is that we are no longer in a financially slick environment,” Smith told San Jose Spotlight. “We have to find ways to cut money without reducing services and without affecting our staff.”
Rico Mendez, SEIU 521’s chief elected official, said the diminishing job vacancies fail to address the chronic staffing shortage already burdening existing workers. He added that the loss of district roles means that vulnerable residents lose access and help to obtain resources. SEIU 521 is the county’s largest union, representing more than 12,000 employees including janitors, health care workers, social workers and more, he said.
“Every one (one) of those vacancies, any human being if that vacancy is filled, they’re going to badge each day and provide services to the community,” Mendez told San Jose Spotlight.
Vacancies have plagued Santa Clara County for years. Mental health professionals across county agencies and health care workers at the county-run Santa Clara Valley Medical Center (VMC) have described depleted staffing levels, resulting in effects such as long waiting times for emergency room patients. A 2022 survey revealed that about 69% of county-employed physicians at VMC plan to leave their job in the next three years.
Mendez said eliminating roles could cripple already-strained departments. He said one health care worker broke down in tears in conversation with him, describing a case where a pregnant mother was saved because there were enough staff on that particular day.
“This really drove the life-or-death nature of these decisions home,” he said.
Statewide governments are grappling with worker shortages, but eliminating job vacancies is not the answer, said labor rights attorney and San Jose Spotlight columnist Ruth Silver Taube. Low wages, lack of housing and intense responsibilities are all critical factors that need to be addressed, Silver Taube said.
“(The vacancies) plague a lot of public agencies,” Silver Taube told the San Jose Spotlight. “It looks well on paper that they have fewer vacancies because they’ve deleted them, which is the wrong approach. They need to fill those vacancies because the workload is what drives people away.”

The county is not alone in its staffing problems. San Jose government employees protested last year for better wages, demanding workloads in light of the hundreds of vacancies. Long-standing vacancies in the planning department have led to significant delays in processing permits, which small business owners said is prompting entrepreneurs to open businesses in other cities.
There are people who want to work in public service and contribute to government roles, Silver Taube said, but agencies need to streamline hiring processes to attract these individuals.
Mendez said the county needs to invest in its workers and services now more than ever. He said workers are struggling to do their jobs as well as deal with the mental health effects of the post-pandemic.
“When bad times called for us to be disaster service workers, to rely on the fact that we work for a government agency, we did our part,” Mendez said. Now is the time to look at the numbers outside the box.
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