Sunday Aug 09 2009
Former court employee says layoffs were a surprise
By: Jenifer Gee, Journal Staff Writer
Union, management battled over ways to cut costs
News that about 40 employees would lose their jobs at the Placer Superior Court came as a shock to Edward Dennis. Dennis, who had worked for about a year and a half in the court’s archive division, said employees were initially told in March that layoffs were the “worst-case scenario.” However, things started to change with news that John Mendes was leaving as court CEO. “When the story unfolded about what he did, that was a real shock,” Dennis said. “Everybody really thought he was doing a good thing for the courts.” Mendes left his position at the Placer courts earlier this year. In April, the state Administrative Office of Courts released an audit that alleges Mendes gave himself more than $400,000 in salary increases and benefits during his tenure from 2001 to 2009. The audit was sent to the state Attorney General’s Office and the Placer County District Attorney’s Office, where it remains under review. Over the summer, court management grappled with closing a $3.5 million budget deficit. By the beginning of this month, the gap was closed with a round of employee layoffs, furlough days and other benefit cuts. Tuesday was the first day the Roseville courthouse operated with 33 fewer employees. New CEO Jake Chatters said visitors should expect longer wait times in line and longer delays when calling into the courthouse as remaining employees adjust to their new workload. Some of those who lost their jobs say the transition was not handled well. Dennis said he felt he received conflicting messages from court executives and union management. Dennis supplied the Journal with July 27 and July 30 e-mails from Chatters to all court employees. In the initial e-mail, Chatters tells employees that management and union representatives were unable to reach an agreement on how to reduce the number of layoffs. Chatters wrote that management “had hoped to find ways to accomplish the $1.8 million in reductions needed from represented employee compensation in ways that would save as many jobs as possible.” He said court staff had recommended that union members take similar cuts that unrepresented employees had already agreed to. Those cuts included avoiding a cost-of-living increase this fiscal year, two mandatory furlough days per month starting in September, suspending vacation cash outs and suspending the education incentive, Chatters wrote. He estimated those cuts would have saved the court roughly $1 million and allowed management to rescind between 20 to 24 layoff notices based on the original 42 employees who were notified. Chatters said without an agreement from union representatives, officials were left with the only decision they could make: lay off employees. “To implement the delay in the COLA and/or the other items noted above requires agreement between the court and the union,” Chatters wrote. “And we were not able to reach agreement.” On July 30, Chatters sent another e-mail telling staff that the Placer Superior Court had received a slightly higher allocation of funding from the Judicial Council than it had expected. As a result, management was able to rescind layoffs for eight full-time employees and one part-time employee. Dennis said Chatters’ e-mails came as a surprise and he was “upset” at union representative Kevin O’Hair. “I thought Kevin wasn’t doing enough to save the jobs,” Dennis said. “He didn’t give us a vote on what we wanted to do.” Dennis said he attempted to contact O’Hair but was unsuccessful. “I thought, ‘what’s going on here?’” Dennis questioned. “Who’s telling the truth?” After reviewing both e-mails, Chatters confirmed information within them. “I stand behind what I said in the e-mails,” Chatters said. When contacted by the Journal, O’Hair said he could not comment on the matter and directed questions to the Sacramento office. A call to the office was not returned as of press time. The Journal previously reported that in a July 10 memo from O’Hair to union members, O’Hair said there were “heated discussions between union representatives and court management. Union representatives focused their attention on why there were 18 management positions when over four years ago there were six. Chatters said that between 2005 and 2009, the number of supervisory and management staff grew by 21 percent as the number of represented staff grew by 20 percent. Dennis said losing his job has impacted him “quite a bit.” He said he was in the middle of purchasing a home when he received his initial notice. He has since stopped plans to purchase that home and he continues to look for work. “They said they have a layoff list that if anyone is hired, they’ll go to that list,” Dennis said. “In the short term, I doubt they’ll hire anybody. I’ll probably look into working in a different field.” Jenifer Gee can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.