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Merced County employees struggle as healthcare premiums skyrocket. ‘We have become the working poor’

Members of AFSCME 2703 are shown protesting outside the Merced County Administration building in April 2024, amid rising healthcare premiums.
The Merced FOCUS
Members of AFSCME 2703 are shown protesting outside the Merced County Administration building in April 2024, amid rising healthcare premiums.

Marta Echevarria remembers when having a Merced County job meant being able to pay your bills and having affordable healthcare.

Echevarria, 54, a family services representative with the Human Services Agency, has worked for the county for over 20 years.

When she started, the county covered 100% of employees’ healthcare – and they paid no out-of-pocket costs.

That’s no longer the case. Now, county employees, including Echevarria, say they are taking extreme measures to keep up with the ballooning costs of their insurance premiums.

Last fall, Merced County employees learned that as of Jan. 1, the premiums for their health insurance would increase by 12%, a cost passed to the county from the insurance provider. In December, the Board of Supervisors agreed to a temporary cap of 10%, but many employees say it’s not enough to provide relief from rising costs.

The increase in healthcare alone essentially wiped out any pay raises employees received in the last decade, they said.

In order to stay afloat financially, some employees say they are working dozens of hours of overtime each month. Others describe turning their heaters off during the winter, and they plan to endure the upcoming, triple-digit summer temperatures with no air conditioning.

Some employees even declined coverage altogether, opting instead to pay a tax penalty for having no medical insurance. County retirees haven’t been spared from the increases, either. Some returned to work part time as a result.

“We have become the working poor of Merced County,” Echevarria said during a recent town hall meeting.

Negotiations between Merced County’s labor team and union representatives began late last month, with plans to address the health insurance premiums at the bargaining table. However, a looming budget deficit at the state level has cast a bleak shadow over the plan currently being drafted for Merced County’s upcoming fiscal year.

How much are employees paying?

For decades, Merced County jobs were coveted, in part for the premium benefits offered.

While the county used to cover all employee health insurance costs, over the years premiums rose gradually, around a $15 increase one year to the next, said Echevarria.

The recent hike hit harder, due to stagnant wages over the last several years. With the new cost, Echevarria pays almost $200 a month for medical coverage. That’s low compared to her coworkers who use the coverage for their entire families, she said.

Merced County currently offers medical, dental and vision plans through Anthem. Prices range from $0 for a high deductible plan with no vision or dental coverage for the employee only, to $885 for a phased-out, traditional plan with dental and vision coverage for an employee and their entire family. Those prices don’t reflect the county’s 10% cap, officials said.

In neighboring Stanislaus County, employees pay about $275 a month to cover themselves and their families through Health Partners of Northern California. Madera County offers plans from a range of providers through CalPERS, the state public employee retirement system.

With the current price hike, some Merced County workers who pay for coverage for their partners and children are taking home just a few hundred dollars a paycheck after their healthcare premium is deducted, said Jerald Phelps, president of AFSCME Local 2703, which represents over 600 Merced County employees. He said employees began contributing to their insurance premium in 2018.

Kalisa Rochester, who retired as Merced County’s chief probation officer in 2023, paid nearly $1,000 a month through her Merced County health care plan. That included medical coverage for herself, and dental coverage for herself and one dependent.

She teaches at Merced College now, where she pays $12 a month for the same coverage for her entire family.

“For a long time, people believed that Merced County workers in general make too much money. Really that is a problem of the ‘90s,” Phelps said. “You know, we have not had a fair pay increase in over 23 years.”

Making sacrifices to get by

Phelps grew emotional when talking about the financial struggles his members face.

“The only reason why we continue to work here is because we actually do love the job that we’re doing,” he said. “There’s not one worker that has gone to a board meeting and said ‘I hate this job.’ But with the pay so bad, they don’t know how much longer they can do it.”

One veteran probation officer who works at the county’s Iris Garrett Juvenile Justice Correctional Complex, worked 58 hours of overtime in March in order to pay her bills, she said.

The Merced FOCUS agreed not to disclose the probation officer’s name due to personal safety concerns.

Working the graveyard shift means she starts work at 6 p.m. and sometimes doesn’t get off work until 10 a.m. the next day. By the time she commutes home, she estimates she sleeps three or four hours a day before returning to work for her next shift. On her days off, she mostly catches up on sleep and chores.

One morning in April, she had surgery on her leg at 10 a.m. after getting off work. Later that day, she returned to work an overtime shift. Luckily, the overtime shift was working in a central control station monitoring cameras, so she didn’t have to stand on her feet for eight or 10 hours.

“If I didn’t (work the overtime), then my paycheck for next week, it wouldn’t have been enough,” she said. “Yeah, I couldn’t even take yesterday off for my surgery,” the officer said.

“The doctor said I would have to take two weeks off, but can you imagine if I took two weeks off of work, without having any overtime within those two weeks? There’s no way. I have to have that overtime. Yeah, there’s no way around it.”

Another employee who works at the juvenile center, Jaclyn Valenzuela, said the increase to her healthcare premium has forced her to pay bills – such as PG&E or Comcast – with credit cards.

Valenzuela was among the picketers at an evening meeting for the Board of Supervisors last month. She hoped the protest would encourage supervisors to acknowledge employees’ struggles.

“We are out here fighting for higher wages and better health care, cheaper health care, so our families can survive this economy,” she said.

“We’re just wanting our voices to be heard and to be acknowledged by the Board of Supervisors. We’re hoping that they take us seriously and that they increase our wages. I’ve worked here for 23 years, and my checks get smaller and smaller every year.”

Where do the supervisors stand?

Phelps, president of AFSCME Local 2703, said he hopes the county will hold true to a promise made by longtime Merced County Supervisor Daron McDaniel.

“We are putting everything on the table,” McDaniel said, referring to labor negotiations and the proposed budget for the next fiscal year.

McDaniel made the comment during a recent town hall in Atwater. He was responding to questions and comments regarding the increase to employee healthcare coverage.

Amid the ongoing labor negotiations, some supervisors have been vocal about a potential budget crisis in the upcoming fiscal year, taking cues from the state’s forecasted budget deficit.

The state’s Legislative Analyst’s Office has projected California will face a shortfall of $73 billion. Leaders predict the shock waves from the deficit will be felt statewide – not just in Merced County.

County Supervisor Scott Silveira said he’s concerned about the upcoming fiscal year, and there’s only so much the board can do.

“This is going to get real, real interesting,” he said. “Don’t think for one second that it has anything to do with lack of respect for our employees.”

Silveira added, “I’ll just remind everybody once again, the pie is only so big, and any way we slice that pie, there is still the same amount of pie.”

During a town hall in Livingston, County CEO Raul Lomeli Mendez noted that in the three years since he came to the county, the pay increases offered during negotiations were more than in past years.

“We’re in active negotiations now and we’re trying to see what more can be done going forward, and that takes time,” Mendez said. “I’m optimistic.”

Since last summer, Merced County Sheriff Vern Warnke has publicly criticized and blamed the CEO’s office for deputies leaving the county for greener pastures.

The Board of Supervisors is scheduled to vote Tuesday on a one-year agreement with the Merced County Deputy Sheriff’s Association that would give deputies a 10% pay raise and continue the 10% healthcare cap. The proposed agreement comes after the deputies rejected an earlier, lower wage increase.

Holding onto hope, but for how long?

Echevarria, the veteran Human Services Agency employee, says she’s a proud product of the department. “To have gone from welfare to work is like one of my greatest missions,” she said. “I share that with my clients so that they’re aware that there is a way to get out of that hole.”

She hopes that if her clients know she did it, they’ll believe they can do it, too.

At a Board of Supervisors meeting last month, Echevarria shared the story of her upbringing during public comment. At 16, she lost both her parents in a murder suicide.

Despite her life challenges, she found stability working for Merced County. Back then she was young and healthy. “Now I really, really truly need that healthcare, and it’s failing me now,” she said.

Ultimately, she worries about how the low staffing will affect the clients who depend on the services she and her coworkers administer, such as child protective services, medical insurance, cash aid to pay rent and food stamps.

But now, she has more immediate concerns – such as how to cut down on air conditioning, as summer approaches.

It may not save her much, but hopefully it will be enough to cover her bills until the next paycheck.

“It makes me want to cry when I think about how hard I work and to have to come home to no heat and now no air. It’s very frustrating,” she said.