The Contra Costa Board of Supervisors, from left, Diane Burgis, Federal D. Glover, Candace Anderson, Karen Mitchoff and John M. Gioia. (Photo courtesy of Contra Costa County)

The Contra Costa County Board of Supervisors has unanimously approved a “temporary emergency worker” classification to make it easier to hire workers needed in the midst of the current coronavirus pandemic.

The vote March 31 came after some public commenters accused county officials of trying to get around certain union hiring criteria, and that the hired temps would not have union protections. The lowest end of the $12- to $35-an-hour pay scale was called “poverty wages” by one commenter, Miles Parker.

Parker also said such wages and lack of protections amount to taking advantage of workers made desperate by the COVID-19 pandemic.

“You would be no better than profiteers in the private sector,” he said.

Another commenter favored bringing in National Guard personnel to fill emergency roles over hiring people under the county’s proposed terms. A third said anyone that is hired should be hired for a permanent position, and not temporary.

County officials countered that they need to be able to hire workers quickly to replace or augment other workers who fall sick, must be otherwise quarantined, or who are reassigned to COVID-19 response-related duties. With events bringing on almost daily changes and pivots, the emergency hiring needs to happen quickly.

County Administrator David Twa told the supervisors March 31 that he and his staff should have reached out more effectively to county employee unions; such discussions were to have taken place Thursday.

Twa said the emergency workers would not be replacements for union workers, and that the classification isn’t meant to harm the unions. And he isn’t sure such workers will be hired anyway.

“There’s no intention here not to use our (existing) employees to the extent possible,” Twa said. “If we absolutely have to use it, we don’t want to have to wait.”

County Supervisor Karen Mitchoff said you can’t hire permanent workers when those permanent positions may well not exist, especially with Contra Costa and other counties likely facing budget problems, and possibly layoffs.

“We’re trying to prevent a crisis,” she said.