Health

Saturday, Jul 13 2013 05:00 PM

Extra-help workers live in limbo

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    By Casey Christie / The Californian

    Julian Sanchez, a Kern County Department of Agriculture and Measurement Standards extra-help ag/measurement and standards technician, holds up an insect trap used in the field.

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    By Casey Christie / The Californian

    Karen Whitman, a Kern County Department of Agriculture and Measurement Standards ag tech, demonstrates a Japanese Beetle trap she uses as an extra-help worker for the county.

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    By Casey Christie / The Californian

    Nancy Holland with the Kern County Department of Agriculture and Measurement Standards.

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    By Casey Christie / The Californian

    A Japanese Beetle trap used in the field by the Kern County Department of Agriculture and Measurement Standards.

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BY RACHEL COOK Californian staff writer rcook@bakersfield.com

Karen Whitman and Julian Sanchez are called "extra help," but their job is anything but superfluous.

As Kern County agricultural technicians, Whitman, 42, and Sanchez, 26, spend hot summer days checking insect traps all over the county. Their mission: to ensure nefarious bugs like the Mediterranean fruit fly and light brown apple moth have not infiltrated the area.

The absence of these insects allows the county Department of Agriculture and Measurement Standards to certify that Kern's agricultural products are free of those pests -- and eligible to be exported.

"(The traps are) our first line of defense," said Ruben Arroyo, Kern County agriculture commissioner and sealer of weights and measures.

But jobs like Whitman and Sanchez's are endangered as the county grapples with the Affordable Care Act's mandate to provide health insurance to all full-time employees, which may be defined as those who work 60 hours or more in a two-week period.

The county has about 690 extra-help employees who are not eligible for health insurance through the county, according to a June report by the Kern County Administrative Office.

County government is a major employer in Kern, with about 8,900 employees, roughly 8,700 of whom are full-time by Obamacare's definition, according to the administrative office's report.

"There are currently 7,952 employees offered benefits under existing policies and approximately 750 that do not qualify, the majority of which are extra-help employees," county staff wrote.

Last month, the county appeared to be stuck between two expensive options: Failure to provide these workers health care coverage by Jan. 1, 2014, could trigger more than $17 million in fines; offering them insurance would cost as much as $8 million, according to the report.

But there was another, probably cheaper choice: cut extra-help employees' hours to 59 per two-week period.

Michelle Sans Soucie, an agricultural biologist and one of the trapping program's supervisors, said it "was devastating" when staff were told to prepare to reduce the hours extra-help employees work by July 1.

"If we compromise the trapping program it compromises us being able to export, which is a huge business here," she said.

The prospect of losing hours also distressed Whitman and Sanchez, who work 40 hours a week.

"My initial thought was, 'I gotta start looking for another job because a part-time gig isn't gonna cut it.' Not just for me but I mean all the people here, they have families or significant others or kids and so it's really a burden when you're figuring out that your hours are going to be cut," said Sanchez, who does not have health insurance.

Whitman, too, questioned whether she should start looking for other work or fit a second job into her potentially shifting schedule. A mother of two teenage boys, she has insurance through her husband's electrician job, but wonders if cutting hours for county extra-help would be a double blow to other employees.

"(If hours were cut), the people that didn't have insurance now are less likely to afford it and then have to pay a penalty on top of that" for not having coverage, Whitman said.

The scenario Sanchez, Whitman and their supervisor feared has not materialized just yet. Last week, the Obama adminstration announced it would delay the employer mandate one year, to 2015.

But Deputy County Administrative Officer Eric Nisbett said the delay doesn't spell long-term relief for county government.

"Whatever options we have in front of us, there's still a lot of process that we have to go through," he said.

Regina Kane, president of SEIU, Local 521, said the county has asked the union to meet and "we're in the process of putting those meetings together." The union represents about 600 extra-help workers, Nisbett said.

Kern's conundrum is not unique. Eraina Ortega, legislative representative for the California State Association of Counties, said counties typically have many part-time, intermittent and seasonal employees doing a variety of jobs, from snow removal to life-guarding.

The Affordable Care Act trumps collective bargaining agreements that may have dictated when employees were eligible for health insurance, she explained.

"All the counties are facing this same issue," Ortega said.

A LOT OF EXTRA HELP

Kern County's website featured more than 300 extra-help openings Friday. Jobs included laundering linens at a hospital, flying helicopters "in urban, desert and mountain environment," assisting doctors doing autopsies and trimming trees.

The pay and experience required varied widely, with a high school student intern job paying $8 an hour and a "DNA technical lead criminalist" position offering pay of $7,577 to $9,250 a month.

At any given time, Arroyo's department has roughly one to two dozen extra-help employees. In his fourth-term as an agricultural technician, Sanchez makes $13.27 a hour, while Whitman on her second stint makes around $12.

This year, the department hired additional extra help in anticipation of new limitations on how much those employees could work. Some were let go when restrictions were not imposed, Arroyo said.

"We let them know up-front that this may happen but we can't wait to make that decision last-minute," he said.

Other county departments also began to look at how to accommodate a reduction in hours extra-help employees could work.

Mental Health Director Jim Waterman, whose department has about 40 extra-help employees, said his staff was looking into hiring and scheduling extra-help workers for the jail. He was "really glad" the issue was put off.

On one hand, Waterman said, he understood the county's position. But he also knew that cutting hours by about 25 percent would not engender a happy work force.

"From the employees' point of view, that (possibility) was a tough pill to swallow, I'm sure," he said.

Leaders of the Department of Human Services were and still are waiting for direction from the County Administrative Office and Board of Supervisors.

The department currently has 115 extra-help workers, but on average relies on 140 to 150.

"We use them in almost every category we have, clerical support up through case management services," Director Pat Cheadle said. "They're very important to our organizations in terms of being able to not only meet our mandate, but to provide the customer service that we need to provide to the community."

Depending on what option supervisors select, the department impact could be minimal to serious, Cheadle said. The least impactful would be if extra-help staff were offered health insurance and could continue to work their regular hours, she said.

The next-least disturbing option would be if extra-help employees' terms were shortened from nine months to eight, allowing them to work more hours but for a shorter period of time.

"The worst-case scenario for our department would be if the direction was to reduce the hours to the 59 hours per pay period," Cheadle said.

Cutting hours would require more space and parking and the revamping of how the department trains extra-help workers. Filling those positions might also be harder, the director said.

"We have a concern that we may not be able to find qualified applicants that are interested in basically a part-time position for nine months," Cheadle said.

She also wonders what the effect reducing the hours would have on unemployment and public benefit programs.

"I think it would be important for us to do sort of a cost-benefit analysis to see what those costs could be versus the cost of potentially offering the health benefits," she said.

While he had not calculated the costs of reducing hours on Thursday, Nisbett said he was fairly certain it would be less than the price of penalties or providing health insurance.

"We're trying to look at it from as broad of a perspective as we can and not limit it to one particular avenue, but (reducing hours) seems to be the lowest-cost options that's available," Nisbett said. "With departments having budget issues over the last several years, that's definitely going to be at the top of the list."

THE WAITING GAME

The unresolved hours vs. insurance quandary is unsettleing, other county extra-help workers said last week. Three in the Kern County Probation Department have been striving to earn permanent jobs with the agency.

"When you hear about your hours getting cut, you're always a little concerned 'cause you kind of depend on the money that you make," said Mark Caya, who is nearing the end of his second term as an extra-help juvenile corrections officer.

Caya, 39, said he loves his job, which entails leading minors on grounds detail and earning more than $18 an hour. Married with three children, Caya has insurance through his wife, who is a kindergarten teacher. He typically works 56 to 64 hours a week if he takes on extra shifts.

Caya said he knows his employers are working hard to get employees as many hours as possible and he's confident something will work out.

"I know something's going to happen but I'm not sure how it's going to be handled from the top yet. So I guess I'm not as worried maybe because I don't know what to worry about," Caya said Tuesday at the end of an eight-hour shift.

Caya's fellow extra-help juvenile corrections officer Erendira Luna said she sometimes works 120 hours in a two-week period. She makes nearly $19 hourly during her sixth term as an extra-help Probation worker.

A single mother, Luna asked how she could afford day care for her 2-year-old son if her hours were reduced.

"How am I supposed to survive off 59 hours to provide, you know, a place, food and all the other necessities that we need?" she said. "On one income now I'm just barely making it."

Luna doesn't have health insurance and said she doesn't worry about that as long as her son has coverage. She said he is currently enrolled in Healthy Families, a state program.

D. Robledo, who is also in her sixth extra-help job with the probation department, is in the same boat. Her 8-year-old daughter is covered by her father's insurance, but Robledo is not.

"To have no health insurance and get cut back on our hours, you know I feel like it's just a lose-lose for us because a lot of us don't have health insurance," she said.

"Me, personally, you know I'm a single mother. I have a mortgage payment by myself. To get cut back to 60 hours and then get nothing out of it, it's going to be hard."

Robledo does not think the Obama administration thought of this conundrum while crafting health care reform.

"It's a great idea to provide health insurance for everyone because you know we all need it but at the same time, we also need to pay our bills," she said.

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