Don't even get Mary Grillo started about Larry Prior, the county's previous chief administrative officer. Grillo, head of the 10,000-member Service Employees International Union Local 2028, constantly bashed foreheads with Prior over his penchant to slash permanent employees and replace them with cheaper, more malleable temporary workers.
“He called it ‘recession-proofing your budget,' Grillo recalled with mock laughter. “We didn't talk during the last two years, except through the press. It was amazing.”
Prior, a former TRW exec, resigned from the top county post in mid-1999 to scoot back into the private sector, but Grillo insists the county is still struggling with a workforce that is oftentimes disjointed and not well monitored-particularly when it comes to so-called contingent workers, as temps are now commonly called. Prior's replacement, long-time county employee Walt Ekard, is said to be more receptive toward minimizing the use of temporary workers, which oftentimes, Grillo explains, leads to the elimination of full-time positions and the requisite benefits that come with them. Similar schemes have resulted in class-action lawsuits filed by aggrieved employees across the nation, most recently in Seattle, with Microsoft, and at the Metropolitan Water District in Los Angeles.
“Walt's better to deal with,” Grillo admitted. “I think he recognizes the problems with having a large temporary workforce in terms of providing quality service. As we've seen in Seattle, this is a fact of life. I think what we've seen at the county is some unsuccessful privatization attempts, so I think they're waking up to the fact that it's not a panacea.
“Government is really not a business,” Grillo continued. “Government employees are committed to public service, and you can't contract out that kind of commitment.”
The county bureaucracy is undeniably immense-some 17,600 full-time employees as of April 1, the most recent figures the county could provide. (By press time, county officials had spent three days trying to gather totals for temporary workers in its numerous departments, but never called back with the results.) The county also counted another 344 employees as part-time, but officials really couldn't say what that meant.
Last year, the Center on Policy Initiatives, a union-affiliated research organization that champions the plight of low-wage earners in the current tight economic climate, released a report on the use of temporary employees at the county level. Titled “Temporary Government,” the report was a scathing rebuke of all things temporary in government. Donald Cohen, head of CPI, put it this way: “The county had an incentive structure in place that made it a lot easier and more desirable to use temps. But I think they've started to clean up their act.” As Cohen explains it, the philosophy Prior brought into the county was “very private-sector oriented,” where cost-cutting responsibilities are pushed down into each department and into the hands of department heads. Top that with a management bonus system that rewards for things like minimizing head counts, and-tada! Well, you can see where the motivation to use temps might arise,” Cohen winks.
The CPI report, packed with mind-numbing statistics, nevertheless paints a picture of government bureaucracy heavily reliant on temporary workers, particularly from temp agencies, which typically receive a 20- to 60-percent markup for each worker employed. The most addicted to temps? The District Attorney's office, which racked up enough temporary secretary hours in the year 2000 to fill as many as 108 equivalent full-time positions.
Before the DA's Bureau of Child Support Enforcement was moved to the county's Health and Human Services department, CPI researchers determined that fully half of the 500 Child Support workers were temps. State law mandated that the bureau be split off and made independent of the DA's office. It also made it tougher to contract out for employees. At one point, Grillo said, the DA's office had several “temporary” employees who had been there for six years. “The board of supervisors had approved it, but now he's made them permanent. So that I consider a success story.”
Another such success story, she said, would have to be the A.B. and Jessie Polinsky Center, a Kearny Mesa facility built eight years ago through a private-public partnership to care for neglected, abandoned and abused children. It is a place that mixes tragedy with hope, and it has had its controversies. In 1998, a 13-year-old ran away from the center. The report noted that at that time, about a third of 144 staff positions were unfilled and that lesser-paid, under-trained temporary workers were brought in to “handle the overload.”
One temporary worker at the Polinsky Center, who requested that his name not be used, said last week that the atmosphere has changed greatly since he first started working there. “I think we're staffed quite adequately now,” he said. “When that kid ran away, we were not a licensed facility. We're licensed now. We also have a no-hands-on policy, which means if a 13-year-old wants to jump over a fence, he's gonna do it and we can't do nothing about it.”
When he first started, the worker recalled having to wear a vest that was shaded slightly lighter than the permanent workers. “There were a lot of light vests back then. Now we all wear the same outfits,” he said. He said he enjoys being an “agency” worker-meaning he in fact works not for the county but an outside employment agency, in this case Texas-based NurseFinders, which has an office in Mission Valley and is a top county supplier-because he can choose when he works. Lacking benefits, he said, is not a problem at the moment.
But for many the lack of benefits-both medical and retirement-places them in a tenuous and traumatic position. Cohen of CPI estimates that only a quarter of temp workers want to be temps. The remainder, he said, want full-time employment.
As for hiring practices at the city of San Diego, it too includes the use of temp workers, although no one has yet conducted a comprehensive study of the situation. Judy Italiano, president of the San Diego Municipal Employee Association, which represents the bulk of the city's white-collar workers, told CityBeat: “The city does hire temporary help. They have their own pool as well as calling in outside temporary help. And we battle that on a regular basis as far as trying to keep jobs filled with full-time permanent personnel.”
Adds Cohen: “Temporary work is all about the shedding of responsibility. Employers don't want the responsibility for benefits, for hiring and firing, and for wages. So they're shedding. It's a restructuring of American enterprise and how staffing is done. It's a pretty significant shift.”