.Employees say no deal on offer from Marin Housing Authority

Despite meeting for months, the Marin Housing Authority and its 30 unionized employees have yet to reach a labor agreement.

The contract between the Marin Housing Authority (MHA) and the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) 1021 expired on Dec. 31.

Both sides have engaged in bargaining sessions since November. At last count, they’ve sat down at the table 18 times to hash out their differences.

The primary sticking points include wages and benefits. In addition, the union wants MHA to staff up with in-house employees, rather than using outside vendors to provide contract workers.

MHA’s wages are 20-30% less than other housing authorities in the Bay Area, making it difficult to hire and retain qualified union employees, according to Joel Evans-Fudem, an SEIU 1021 field representative. Increased health insurance costs also take a bite of an employee’s paycheck.

Carrie Smith, an MHA housing locator, said the lack of competitive wages and benefits has created financial hardship for many MHA staff members.

Last month, I interviewed several employees while they walked the picket line in front of MHA’s office in San Rafael. Some say they are on the brink of losing their own housing. One worker couldn’t afford the health insurance offered by MHA and was forced to place her children on Medi-Cal, the state’s Medicaid program.

“I can’t afford to pay for child care while I’m at work,” said Jessica Jackson, an MHA case manager. “It’s hard. I’m one step away from drowning.”

The descriptions of their struggles led me to the obvious question: Why do these union workers stay at MHA? The answer I repeatedly heard was that their clients need them.

Those clients include thousands of Marin residents. Many live in the 496 public housing units operated by MHA. Others are part of the Section 8 voucher program run by MHA, which currently consists of 2,300 households. The union maintains that the ongoing labor issues negatively impact the people MHA serves, especially when jobs are farmed out to contract workers.

“This is work that we truly, truly care about,” said Ceena Ford, an MHA program specialist. A lot of us have been housing insecure. Our clients need help from people that have that understanding and passion and will treat them with dignity. Even though some employees are struggling, they can’t bring themselves to hurt our clients by leaving.”

If they resign, the employees fear they’ll be replaced by the contractors that MHA has relied on for years. They cite serious issues with one of those contractors, Nan McKay and Associates.

Marin public housing residents and voucher holders lined up at recent MHA Board of Commissioners meetings to complain about the firm. Some spoke of Nan McKay and Associates failing to send the necessary paperwork, losing submitted documents and sending unjustified eviction notices. These aren’t isolated cases.

In November, the San Francisco Housing Authority filed a lawsuit against Nan McKay and Associates for breach of contract, contending the firm hurt the city’s vulnerable population by “providing services poorly or not providing services.”

Still, in February, the MHA board approved a one-year contract with Nan McKay and Associates for $425,000 and the option for another year at $125,000. However, Kimberly Carroll, MHA’s director, agreed to a transition plan to bring these case management positions in-house and to another vendor within 12 to 15 months.

And so, the MHA employees stay on for the sake of their clients and hope they can hammer out a new labor contract. Whether MHA and the union workers are close to an agreement depends on who you ask.

In an email, Carroll said that she is confident the matter will soon be resolved with a fair and reasonable multi-year contract.

“Marin Housing has significantly improved its offers over the course of these negotiations,” Carroll said.

However, the union disputes Carroll’s claims, maintaining the housing authority refuses to bargain in good faith and lacks the transparency required of public agencies.

“They haven’t moved from their proposal and don’t seem interested in creative solutions to get to an agreement,” Evans-Fudem said. “They keep promising and failing to deliver current, accurate financial data.”

As a result, the union filed an unfair practice charge with the California Public Employment Relations Board (PERB), claiming MHA is bargaining in bad faith and has failed to provide the requested information. In a February letter, PERB said it would schedule an informal settlement conference soon.

In the meantime, MHA provided a “last, best and final offer,” with two options that would remain in effect through March 31, 2027. Neither addresses that employees earn 20-30% less than workers in similar positions at other Bay Area housing authorities.

The first option provides union employees with a 6% increase after the agreement is accepted and a 3% annual raise during each of the following two years. Additionally, MHA would pay 90-100% of the Kaiser health insurance premium.

MHA’s second option offers the same 6% wage increase after acceptance of the contract and a 4.5% bump in both 2026 and 2027. However, the employee would be responsible for a larger portion of the health insurance cost.

MHA apparently wants union employees to choose between wages and health care. Should a full-time worker at a public agency in one of America’s wealthiest counties have to decide whether they prefer to put food on the table or take their kids to the doctor?

Evans-Fudem believes the MHA board needs to provide more oversight to the agency. He’s not alone. The board, which includes the five members of the Marin County Board of Supervisors and two “tenant commissioners,” has often been criticized for not paying enough attention to the agency they govern.

As an example, Evans-Fudem points to the December meeting, when the board quickly approved MHA’s 2024 budget of $92 million.

“There were almost no numbers in the short budget presentation,” Evans-Fudem said. “The board asked hardly any questions.”

There are other concerns. MHA is top-heavy, with almost one manager for every 1.5 workers, according to Evans-Fudem. And poor conditions at the public housing properties have been an ongoing issue.

Historic Golden Gate Village in Marin City, with its 296 units, is by far the largest property MHA manages. Residents have long complained that apartments are rife with rodents, mold, plumbing leaks, broken heating and faulty wiring.

An MHA employee of seven years, Jose Godinez, spoke about the conditions at Golden Gate Village during public comment at last month’s MHA board meeting. He works on the property’s maintenance.

“We have right now in the system over 350 work orders,” Godinez said. “We need more help.”

Indeed, it seems that MHA staff members require more support from their employers to enable them to provide clients with the services they deserve.

Currently, the union hasn’t accepted either of the options in MHA’s “last, best and final offer.” It remains to be seen whether MHA will put out a better plan. Until then, the stalemate continues.

Nikki Silverstein
Nikki Silverstein is an award-winning journalist who has written for the Pacific Sun since 2005. She escaped Florida after college and now lives in Sausalito with her Chiweenie and an assortment of foster dogs. Send news tips to [email protected].

1 COMMENT

  1. One might consider to tap a mutually agreed upon neutral non-government entity ombudsman to survey both sides proposed realistic needs, for the employees & the board’s accountable management. Parlaying between the two means publishing their findings or data based on facts. In business, as in government, sacrifices are made, but especially in today’s economy money is tight, but the idea is not to throw the baby out with the bath water, as the expression goes in negotiations, but rather it is to discover a creative balance dance of give & take that once achieved both can live with, as compared to those who lost because they never understood that dance of compromise and preferred ‘All or nothing’ stance, hence receiving nothing. Never let a stalemate continue but come to a resolve.

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