Open Mic

City Saps Seniors

By Tony White

IN SANTA ROSA, the “City Designed for Living,” one does not have to look very far to see the “two Americas”; that is, a country divided between a few affluent Americans and many hardworking members of society who are struggling to make ends meet, even after reaching retirement age.

What is even more disturbing is that among the latter are employees of the city of Santa Rosa. They are the 28 men and women who operate the toll booths in the five city-owned parking lots. Their ages range from 65 to 89. They work four-hour shifts, sitting in small booths breathing automobile exhaust fumes, and they earn much less than a living wage in Sonoma County.

Besides making change and operating the ticket machines, they are also responsible for security, calling the police or emergency services, arranging for a tow truck in the case of breakdowns and helping when the ticket machines malfunction. Occasionally, they also have to cope with unruly patrons or disturbances in the lots. While the city plans to automate the facilities, an onsite employee will still be needed for these other functions.

For these services, they earn between $8.15 to $9 per hour without benefits. Because they are classified as temporary part-time employees, even though a number have worked 10 to 20 years for the city, they are denied any benefits. If they were reclassified as permanent part-time, they would be entitled to benefits like other city employees, including paid vacations, sick leave and medical insurance.

Why does the city discriminate against this group of city employees? Contrary to public perception, they are not whiling away their “golden years,” but are working to supplement their pensions, life savings or social security. Having worked all their lives, they continue to work in order to pay their bills, especially the increasing costs of medical insurance and prescription drugs. They include professionals, teachers and tradesmen with a wide range of formal education, training and work experiences, and most of the men are veterans.

After the parking lot attendants voted to join SEIU Local 707 in 2003, they negotiated a contract with the city. This year the city offered all its employees a 2 percent pay increase, but given the low wages of the attendants, that amounts to an increase of only 16 cents to 18 cents per hour, or between $2 and $3 per week, the cost of a loaf of bread or a cafe mocha.

Given the high cost of living in Sonoma County, this offer was an insult to these honest, hardworking and loyal city employees. The city also refused to discuss paid holidays, sick leave or healthcare benefits for the parking lot attendants.

When a state negotiator was brought in to mediate, the city refused to reconsider, even though parking lot attendants in several comparable cities in California not only receive higher pay, but also health coverage, including dental care, sick leave, paid vacations and contributions to retirement plans.

As taxpayers, we are the effective employers of all city employees, from the city council to the city manager to the parking lot attendants. Do we want to be on record as supporting this blatant form of exploitation and age discrimination against members of our own community? Shouldn’t we ask why these city employees are treated differently than other classifications? If this practice is illegal, might it subject the city to costly legal action, not to mention embarrassment? If we are in a similar situation in our later years, would we want to be treated in this manner?

According to AARP figures, 4.5 million Americans over 65 continue to work, constituting 3.1 percent of the American labor force. After social security, pensions and savings, employment is the fourth greatest source of income for seniors. About 3.6 million elderly Americans, or 10.4 percent, live below the poverty line and seniors spend disproportionately more on healthcare than other consumers. The plight of the Santa Rosa parking lot attendants, therefore, is not just a local issue, but a national one, which will become worse as our population ages.

As citizens of Santa Rosa who are concerned about human decency, we should insist that the mayor and the city council treat the parking lot attendants with dignity and respect and offer them a living wage with benefits.

Tony White is a professor of history at Sonoma State University and a member of the Living Wage Coalition of Sonoma County. The Byrne Report will return next week.

From the December 1-7, 2004 issue of the North Bay Bohemian.

© Metro Publishing Inc.

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