The Contra Costa County Finance Building in Martinez. (Photo by Samantha Laurey/BCN Foundation)

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While many businesses confront financial ruin and unemployment soars, jobs in Contra Costa County’s public sector have remained remarkably secure. But that could soon change.

So far, while Contra Costa County is bracing for April unemployment figures that may exceed the Great Recession, not a single full-time county employee was laid off in March or April.

“No, we have not laid off any employees at this time,” said Candace Andersen, chair of the Contra Costa County Board of Supervisors. “The county is continuing to provide services through this pandemic. We’re the safety net for the most vulnerable, and need to continue, now more than ever, to provide services.”

Supervisor Candace Andersen says public employees are playing a critical role during the coronavirus crisis.

The relative job security of public sector employees doesn’t sit well with Jack Weir, executive director of the Contra Costa Taxpayers Association, an anti-tax watchdog group.

“In many of our local jurisdictions, priorities have changed from providing service at reasonable cost to providing the most secure and most handsomely compensated jobs to public employees,” Weir said.

“The very idea that these jurisdictions are keeping people on their payrolls while the people who pay these employees are out of work is outrageous.”

But public employees are playing a critical role during the current crisis, Andersen said, noting that even county employees whose jobs were deemed nonessential have shifted to such important functions as working in the county Emergency Operations Center or tracking and tracing COVID-19 patients.

Andersen cited the flexibility of the county library, now providing space, staff and technology to help in the county’s emergency response to the coronavirus pandemic. Library employees are producing masks on 3D printers for first responders, with some staff members working as disaster service workers throughout the county.

Full-time staffing

Not only the county itself, but also county municipalities, have avoided public sector layoffs. An analysis of public staffing numbers for March and April shows that 12 county municipalities have not laid off any full-time workers through April, though some temporary employees have been dropped, had their hours cut or in some cases have been reassigned.

Moraga Town Manager Cynthia Battenberg said that the workload of the Parks and Recreation staff has not been reduced even with all of the facility closures in town.

“Staff are planning multiple summer scenarios as well as rescheduling events and issuing refunds,” Battenberg wrote in a staff report. She also noted that while planning applications have decreased in March and April, the planning department staff is catching up on the backlog of Municipal Code updates.

Jack Weir of the Contra Costa Taxpayers Association questioned the county’s priorities.

But harder decisions loom as the pandemic wreaks havoc with public finances.

How some cities are faring

To help offset a significant deficit in operating revenue for the largest city in the county, Concord City Council members cut their own salaries 10 percent in April and the city slashed the pay of top city executives, including the city manager, by 5 percent. More cuts may be in the offing.

Walnut Creek is implementing a hiring freeze and plans to furlough many of its hourly workers. The city estimates a $13 million revenue decrease for this fiscal year due to shortfalls in sales tax, property tax, occupancy tax, interest and franchise fees.

The city of El Cerrito, facing a $3.8 million budget deficit this year, has furloughed 90 part-time employees, reduced management benefits and proposed elimination of a position in its police department.

And Lafayette forecasts a revenue decrease of $1 million this year and $1.6 million next year. In April, Mayor Mike Anderson conceded that layoffs may be on the way for city employees.

“It’s on the table,” Anderson said.