Between a sweeping power outage and drawn-out strike, things have been pretty tense for Santa Clara County employees. So the email struck a raw nerve.
The offending missive came from Hilary Armstrong—a program manager for County Executive Jeff Smith—in response to a barrage of queries from employees seeking clarification about a directive from about vacation and sick leave.
On Oct. 4, the second day of a strike by the county’s 12,000 SEIU Local 521 workers, Smith told all 22,000 employees in an email that they’d feel the pain. “Until strike activity ends, vacation time that was not previously approved will be denied,” he wrote.
Since the strike involves SEIU and none of the county’s other several public employee unions, Smith’s directive prompted a lot of concerned questions from employees with closed labor contracts. Those queries were steered to Armstrong, who on Oct. 8 sent out a lengthy explainer affirming that, yes, Smith’s paid-leave restriction applied to all staff—SEIU-repped and otherwise.
That didn’t sound right to non-SEIU union heads, who began asking their lawyers whether they should file unfair labor practice complaints with the state. More emails flooded the county exec’s office. And starting on Thursday, the ones sent to Armstrong got an immediate, automatically generated response.
“Thank you for your email!,” it read. “I am on vacation until 10/22/19, and will not be accessing email until then.”
That Armstrong took off before resolving the paid-leave question with concerned union reps rubbed folks the wrong way.
“When I saw that a high-level staffer who was dealing with the vacation cancelation ‘emergency’ went out on vacation herself before the issue was resolved for the other 9,000 impacted county workers,” one non-SEIU union leader said, “I thought to myself, ‘Rules for thee, not for me.’”
The following day, the county exec had another of his underlings, Brian Darrow, clear things up in the following agency-wide email.
Subject: Update and Change on Vacation and Sick Leave Usage for Non-SEIU-Represented Staff During the Strike
Dear Agency/Department Heads:
We continue to receive a number of questions related to the use of sick and vacation leave in the wake of the SEIU strike. As I believe all of you know, SEIU has refused to provide the County with any notice of which facilities will be on strike on any given day, and no end to the strike is currently in sight. Because of the significant challenges this has created, County administration had temporarily put in place more restrictive than normal procedures on use of sick and vacation time to make sure (1) we would have adequate staffing coverage in the case of a strike at all locations to protect public health and safety, and (2) could ensure employees refusing to cross picket lines at various locations weren’t inappropriately seeking to use sick or vacation time to cover time away from work to honor a strike, which was occurring in certain locations. But we have now had an opportunity to review actual sick and vacation utilization for the past week, and with few exceptions, utilization requests from non-SEIU-represented staff has been within normal levels even during the strike. We are therefore revising the direction to departments as follows:
Non-SEIU-represented staff will no longer need to provide a doctor’s note to utilize sick leave for absences of less than 3 days, except where specific misuse is suspected (including, for example, if there is unusually high sick leave use at a particular facility).
SEIU-represented staff must continue to provide a doctor’s note for all sick leave utilization for the duration of the strike.
Vacation or Other Paid Leaves
Non-SEIU-represented staff may be approved for vacation or other paid leaves following normal protocols and approvals, except that requests submitted after a department becomes aware of a work action for the day(s) of such work action cannot be approved unless specifically approved by the appropriate department head due to an unusual circumstance that justifies the leave request. Departments must ensure that sufficient essential personnel remain available at all times. If you denied a request for vacation later this month pursuant to prior direction, you may now reconsider and approve that request pursuant to your departments’ standard approval process for non-SEIU-represented staff.
SEIU-represented staff may not be approved for any vacation or paid time off for the month of October. Requests approved before October 2nd will be honored.
Other Leave Requests
As shared previously, all legally protected leaves should be allowed. Examples of legally required leave include jury duty, appearing in court to comply with a witness subpoena or other court order, attempting to obtain a restraining order relating to domestic violence, pregnancy disability leave, military leave, and leave under the Family and Medical Leave Act or California Family Rights Act. The appropriate leave banks will depend on the specific law, County policy, and County labor contracts.