With the advent of the New Economy and the flurry of downsizing by corporations, government agencies have joined in the effort to streamline by cutting permanent jobs and replacing them with temporary workers.
This restructuring has taken hold of our largest government agency — the county of San Diego. The Center on Policy Initiatives, a San Diego-based research and policy center, recently conducted a study of the county’s use of temporary workers. The findings in the report, “Temporary Government: The County of San Diego’s Growing Use of Temporary Workers,” were alarming.
The study, funded by the Rosenberg Foundation, found that the county employs over 17,000 workers, about 1,832 (as of January) of them non-permanent workers directly hired by the county. Most temporary workers receive no health or pension benefits. Temporary workers hired through temporary help agencies sometimes receive lower pay than their full-time counterparts.
The county charter allows for the use of temporary workers in positions that are “emergency, seasonal or temporary in nature.” Unfortunately, many of the positions being filled are not truly temporary in nature. They are clearly full-time, permanent jobs that have been turned into temp jobs so that the county could avoid paying benefits.
Our review of county records describes a clear management strategy that focuses on head count over the quality of service. County officials have explicitly converted full-time permanent positions into “permanent temporary” positions. In his performance plan, John A. Miller, director of the General Services Department, says the county will “use permanent staff for up to 80 percent of workload requirements and utilize temporary staff/consultants for the balance of workload needs.”
The county is intent on capping its permanent work force in favor of hiring more temporary workers, despite the demands of a rapidly growing population. The county is hiring so many temporary workers that it overspent its budget allocation for temps by at least $10 million in the three previous fiscal years. In the current fiscal year, it has exceeded the budget by $721,000 as of January.
If temps seek county-funded health care through emergency care or health clinics, the taxpayers end up paying anyway. For a county mandated to provide health care for the uninsured, it is sadly ironic that this same public agency fails to provide health insurance to its own workers.
Consider, for example, the experience of a former county temporary worker who was hired through a temporary help agency. Janette Mahnken, 41, worked as a receptionist, account clerk and intermediate clerk typist for three years at the Department of Information Services, making as little as the minimum wage and no benefits. She performed full-time work on a long-term basis, and she passed the Civil Service exam. Yet, even after three years, she was denied a permanent position. Without any health insurance Mahnken visited county-funded health clinics to treat various problems, including a kidney infection, costing her several thousands of dollars.
But this isn’t just a matter of providing equal access to health insurance to all workers. It’s also about the quality of services taxpayers receive. Take, for example, an incident at the county-run center for abused and neglected children.
Three years ago, when a 13-year-old ran away from the Polinsky Center, 43 of the 144 staff positions were vacant, according to the San Diego Union-Tribune. An official admitted that temporary, lesser- paid, and sometimes inadequately trained workers were employed to handle the overload. These temporary workers are allegedly given only a 15-minute video and a handbook as training.
We are entrusting essential public services to be run by underpaid workers with no benefits and no job security. Is that the best we can do?
With an economic downturn looming and job insecurity on high alert, it’s especially crucial to think about how we want our government run. San Diego residents and workers deserve a more responsible, high-quality county government.
Union-Tribune Publishing Co.