City workers decry layoffs, demand alternatives


Kathy Basconcillo, a laid-off worker for the city’s Public Utilities Commission, told supervisors there has been no promise that she and others will be rehired. “Are we just sitting ducks?” she asked. Photo by Christopher D. Cook/SF Public Press.

Mayor Gavin Newsom used his YouTube soapbox to explain his cost-saving plan. Video from the mayor’s press office.


City workers are demanding alternatives to Mayor Gavin Newsom’s hard-nosed fiscal approach as he attempts to close a $522 million projected budget gap through mass layoffs and de-facto furloughs.

As San Francisco grapples with a ballooning deficit for the coming fiscal year, Newsom laid off 17,474 workers two weeks ago, but promised to hire back “most” of them at 37½ hours per week. For the rehired, that represents a 6.25 percent pay cut — which city workers’ unions intend to challenge in court.

Toting 8½-by-11-inch “termination of employment” pink slips, angry city workers lined up at last Wednesday’s Board of Supervisors Budget and Finance Committee hearing to decry the layoffs and urge city leaders to explore other sources of money.

City workers, including librarians and nurses, urged supervisors and Newsom’s budget director, Greg Wagner, to avoid cutting jobs, which Wagner described as a “necessary step” that will save $52.2 million, still far short of balancing the budget.

Catherine Bremer, a librarian since 1979 and chief union steward with the Service Employees International Union Local 1021, told supervisors: “There are 17,000 despondent people out there who lost their job status.” Newsom, she said, “is breaking civil service, purposely turning us into a part-time workforce.”

Another laid-off human services worker, Teresa Lewkowitz, said the city is ignoring the long-term costs of cutting workers and services: “I know people who are losing their homes, their cars. This is going to cost the city a lot more money, does the mayor understand that?”

According to Wagner’s budget presentation to the board, the city stands to lose $290 million in revenue next year — including huge losses in state and federal funds and local tax revenues — while incurring $231 million in rising expenditures for capital equipment costs, health and retirement benefits, and other expenses.

Most departments to shrink

But Newsom’s “reorganization” to a more part-time city workforce is just the beginning. The mayor’s budget team is hoping to save another $115 million through 20 percent reductions in city departmental spending, meaning further staff cuts are on the near horizon.

More than 62 percent of all city workers will be hit by the 6.25 percent pay cuts — but employees in some departments will suffer more than others. While the city has reduced hours for more than 90 percent of accounting and clerical workers, roughly 10 percent of legal and public safety employees will be affected. The Department of Public Health — one of the city’s largest agencies —  is taking by far the biggest hit, with 4,712 staffers seeing pay cuts; public utilities and human services departments, also significant employers, rank second and third, with 2,066 and 1,649 employees affected.  

The mayor has asked department heads to take a 10 percent pay cut.

Lamenting “a tsunami of job layoffs,” Supervisor Ross Mirkirimi said the cuts have “created uneven waves.” While acknowledging that some cutting may be necessary, he urged, “if we are going to streamline, the streamlining better have a measured reasoning.”

Revenue needed: $130 million

As the mayor, supervisors, unions and workers gird for a protracted war over where and whom to sacrifice, there is a growing call for fresh revenue — but little agreement on where it should come from. At Wednesday’s hearing, Wagner insisted the mayor’s office “doesn’t have an ideological opposition” to raising revenue through a ballot measure. “We’re open to hearing ideas that protect jobs and services, we’re open to alternatives," he said.

Supervisor Sean Elsbernd said city leaders “absolutely need to look at the possibility for revenue, but I don’t think it’s possible to get $130 million” — the gap remaining even after all current proposed cuts are tallied.

When pressed after the hearing, Wagner, the budget director, was reluctant to support any specific tax measures. He said the mayor is open to ideas that are politically viable and that protect business growth. “There’s always tax revenue discussion,” he said. “We know what the possibilities are and need to pick among options that voters will be willing to approve.”

“If people have proposals, we’re open,” to hearing them, Wagner said. But when asked about possible corporate taxes, he demurred. “We’re trying to stimulate the economy and create jobs,” he said. “You have to tread carefully.”

Supervisor John Avalos, who has repeatedly called for new revenue approaches, said city unions can play a key role in that process: “Labor needs to come to the table with alternatives, and if they are united they can do that.”

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