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911 Dispatchers In Santa Clara County Threaten To Strike

SAN JOSE (CBS SF) -- Dozens of union emergency dispatchers rallied in San Jose Thursday to say they may strike against Santa Clara County over mandatory overtime, but the county's top official said that could trigger a court injunction to block it.

Members of Service Employees International Union Local 521 showed up to support the union's insistence that the county stop requiring its 61 communications dispatchers to work overtime to fill 73 full-time positions.

The county also has failed to recruit new qualified workers and hold onto veteran employees who are leaving for better jobs elsewhere, the union's chief elected officer Luisa Blue said.

Requiring 911 dispatchers to work hundreds of hours of overtime a month while the county seeks to hire new dispatchers for its understaffed Communications Department amounts to an unfair labor practice, Blue said.

Dispatchers have been compelled to work more than 2,000 hours of overtime already this month by the county, Blue said.

"The county is leaving us no other option but to declare an unfair labor practices strike," Blue said.

"We're also ready to strike because the county is failing to address problems with recruiting and retaining a cutting edge workforce," Blue said.

About 96 percent of the 9,000-member union voted on Aug. 13 to permit its bargaining team to call a strike if the union and the county cannot ratify a new contract for communications workers, Blue said.

But County Executive Jeff Smith said emergency dispatchers are designated as "essential employees," like public hospital and jail employees, who are vital to public safety and can be legally compelled to work by court order.

"We have been preparing for some time to use injunctive relief if there is a threat of any essential employees going on strike," Smith said.

Smith acknowledged that the county has been requiring dispatchers to work overtime and does not like having to do it.

"The problem has been it's been extremely hard to find people qualified, and interested," Smith said.

The county gets many applications for vacant dispatcher positions but applicants have to go through "a rigorous process" of passing a background check and undergoing extensive training, Smith said.

Only about 10 percent of the applicants qualify, and then some decide not to accept an offer, making filling full-time dispatcher jobs difficult, Smith said.

The union also claims that the county has failed to hold onto qualified health care employees, Blue said.

Only 27 physical therapists are now working out of 42 full-time equivalent jobs the county has and more than 50 percent of the county's pharmacists have left since 2011, Blue said.

But Smith said that the county "has a very high retention rate," losing only about 4 to 5 percent of its employees a year.

Local 521 and the county began contract renewal negotiations in April, Blue said.

(Copyright 2013 by CBS San Francisco and Bay City News Service. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)

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