Fresno court workers launch strike; court functioning with skeleton crew

Fresno Superior Court workers go on strike

Hundreds of Fresno County Superior Court workers, members of the SEIU Local 521 Chapter, picketed at the courthouse in Fresno, CA on Tuesday morning, Jan. 15, 2019.
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Hundreds of Fresno County Superior Court workers, members of the SEIU Local 521 Chapter, picketed at the courthouse in Fresno, CA on Tuesday morning, Jan. 15, 2019.

Hundreds of Fresno County Superior Court workers picketed under gray skies Tuesday morning, as a skeleton crew of workers sought to prevent the court from shutting down.

SEIU Local 521 members were striking at separate locations, including outside the main Fresno courthouse building.

Fresno County Superior Court spokeswoman Suzanne Abi-Rached didn’t return inquiries seeking comment on what kind of plan the court had in place to deal with the strike, and whether any disruptions had been noted.

SEIU Local 521 Chapter President Denise Dedmon said between 200 to 250 employees were planning to strike.

Dedmon said a small team, which included eight court reporters, was working to help keep the system running. At one point, a line of people going to court wrapped around the building, but that’s not unusual during the busy early morning hours.

It’s the first strike at the Fresno courthouse, she said. “A skeleton crew volunteered to keep the court from completely shutting down,” she said, adding those working would join the picket line during their lunch hour.

SEIU first put the Frenso courthouse on notice of its strike over “unfair labor practices” Thursday. The labor negotiations pertain to court reporters, judicial assistants, court office assistants, account clerks and child custody recommending counselors.

In a letter, dated Thursday, the court said it had limited funding, and the offer it has already made is all it can afford within its budget. It offered to increase the working hours for court reporters up to 37.5 hours per week from 35 hours.

It also offered a 3 percent cost-of-living increase for all the worker classifications, except for court reporters. It has also offered incentives, like a one-time $200 cash payment per employee, and four hours of personal paid time off.

Fresno attorney Eric Schweitzer, who was in court for a client Tuesday morning, said he wouldn’t describe the situation as “chaotic” inside. Judge Jonathan Conklin was maintaining order in the court by handling several calendars from the third floor, he said.

“But the sheer numbers are not conducive to getting anything done,” Schweitzer said. “The 7th floor halls are so crowded you can hardly pass. People are very, very upset.”

The skeleton crew, Schweitzer said, was working to process the cases for an entire urban courthouse.

“All are being funneled into a few courtrooms that can be staffed by management,” he said. “Restricted access to the fair administration of justice. Like a rationing situation. Only the neediest can be cared for. This situation cannot last long.”

Felony cases, which need a court reporter, were sent to the 7th floor, as well as sentencing cases. Inmates were also moved up to the 7th floor. The third floor was unusually empty with different departments bearing a sign on the door, noting a change of courtroom.

Court departments 71 and 72 were opened up to hear cases from the third floor.

Inside courtroom 71, for example, there was back and forth, with the judge calling cases from different third floor departments. Often, cases weren’t ready. “It’s going to be a while to get this going,” said Judge David Gottlieb, sitting in the chair of department 71’s Judge Gary Hoff.

Individuals who were present for moral support or accompanying defendants were asked to exit the courtroom and make space for those who had pending cases Tuesday.

Meanwhile, Dedmon said workers will continue to strike as long as they need to. Workers have been working without a contract since Oct. 1, she said. One of the main focuses of the strike is to attempt to get the court to restore employees’ working hours to be full-time.

The union sent an email to the court administration on Monday morning. “We have not heard a word,” Dedmon said. “There’s always hope that they (the court) will contact us.”

The strike is at two locations: at the courtyard in front of the Fresno County Superior Court’s main building on Van Ness Avenue and at the B.F. Sisk Courthouse, located at 1130 O St.. By the afternoon, Dedmon said the picketers were forced to strike on the sidewalk near M Street after the county allegedly pulled their permit.

Their permit was allegedly pulled due to complaints from nearby offices about the strikers being too loud, she said. It was still unclear Tuesday evening if the permit had been revoked, which would prevent the union from striking on county property.

“They are not going to silence us,” Dedmon said. “They are trying to take our voice and that’s not going to happen.”

Natalie Kjar, who has worked as a court reporter for 23 years, was among the workers on the picket line Tuesday morning. She said she believes the court doesn’t treat its employees with respect. With the benefits the court has offered, some employees will be going backwards, she said.

Kjar said court reporters saw their working hours reduced by five hours about six years ago. Court reporters are asking for those hours to be restored. “We just want our 40 hours back,” she said. “Just fairness.” With court reporters working full-time, she said, “Justice can be served more fairly.”

Mandy Montelongo, who is a judicial assistant, said all other courts in California have restored their court reporters to 40 hours a week, except for the Fresno courthouse. “We know that the court has money,” she said.

The court, she said, is choosing to use those funds for the technology department. “We’ve gotten to a point where we are tired,” she said. “We are open to further negotiations.”

Karen Urtiz, who has worked at the Fresno courthouse for 27 years as data entry staff, said workers are crossing their fingers. “We are all hoping they’ll go back to the table,” she said.

Yesenia Amaro: 559-441-6144, @YeseniaAmaro
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