PLACERVILLE, CALIFORNIA

Opinion

The trouble with the French

By From page A4 | April 17, 2013

Project Labor Agreements, Meyers-Milias-Brown Act, Minimum Wage law, National Labor Relations Board. Government certainly has a heavy hand in the employment scene. It could be worse. Worse is called France.

Consider the French drug maker Sanofi. It has a research lab in Toulouse that hasn’t made a major discovery in 20 years. It wants to close the plant as excess to its needs and offer the employees jobs at its labs in other French cities. It opened a lab in Boston, Mass., that is doing new drug research.

The reaction of the 600 lab scientists was to stage weekly “Thursdays of Anger” and confront management with the Maori war dance, the Haka. They also took the company to court. In March the court ruled that Sanofi acted contrary to French labor law by failing to clarify with unions how many jobs, and which type were at risk from its reorganization plans and it failed to have a plan to save the jobs.

The mayor of Toulouse wants a law that would prevent companies from laying off workers.

That’s France, but don’t laugh; this country could get there yet.

Recently the El Dorado Irrigation District reviewed the legislative restrictions under which it operates.

The presentation began by noting that in California private employees are all “at will.” They can be fired or let go at any time. Public employees, however, once they pass probation have civil service protection and the U.S. Supreme Court has said they have a “property right” to their jobs.

Furthermore, unionization, instituted by Gov. Jerry Brown in his first governorship in the 1970s, requires public agencies to negotiate with the union. In California 58.4 percent of the public sector is unionized while 8.9 percent of the private sector is unionized. The Meyers-Milias-Brown Act requires negotiating “all matters relating to employment conditions” and “wages, hours and other terms and conditions of employment.” At EID about two-thirds of the employees are in the association, or union.

Despite these restrictions EID has managed to cut its employee roster by about 84.5 positions since 2008; another 6.5 positions are budgeted but unfilled. And as property tax revenue and hookup fees declined, EID employees have made substantial concessions, picking up a greater portion of their health care costs and their entire share of their pension payments five years before a legislative deadline.

EID employees have a pretty good pay scale, but 50 percent of the workforce are engineers, information technology professionals and water treatment and wastewater plant operators who are required to have specialized certificates. To attract and retain these key people, EID pays competitive wages and benefits. It also sponsors classes at the local community college that train new plant operators.

EID’s human resources officer, Jose Perez, said a recent recruitment for a distribution operator attracted 17 applications, but only five met the minimum qualifications. Of those five only three accepted interview offers. Two were asked back for a second interview and only one accepted the interview offer, ultimately declining the job offer because EID’s payscale meant a $9,000 cut for that applicant.

EID has 211 retirees as of June 2011, collecting an average pension of $22,500, with the average age being about 66.

General Manager Jim Abercrombie said that about 30 percent of the district’s employees will be eligible to retire in the next five years.

“Within this framework we have a very constructive relationship with our employees,” Perez said.

EID management and employees have been conservative with the ratepayers’ money. Unlike Sanofi, which is an international drug company, EID is stationary and limited to El Dorado County. It must innovate within its mandate to provide clean water and sophisticated sewer service. It has done that by eliminating its sewer plant lab and having a private contractor provide lab services. It replaced 24-hour staffing for the sewer plants with computerized remote control and used those extra people to operate more sewer line cleaning trucks to cut sewage spills down to nearly zero.

The public sector operates under different rules established by the state Legislature. So far the Legislature hasn’t Frenchified the public sector.

Mountain Democrat

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