Supes vote to suspend public health layoffs for two months

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By Rebecca Bowe

Department of Public Health employees who are affected by budget cuts have reason to breathe a temporary sigh of relief after today's Board of Supervisors meeting. Eight supervisors, the two-thirds majority needed to pass the item, voted to spend roughly $1.8 million in the Department of Public Health to push back pending layoffs until the end of January. Sup. David Campos suggested the compromise move, emphasizing that job loss is particularly bitter when it strikes during the holiday season.

Although the supervisors -- excluding Sups. Carmen Chu, Sean Elsbernd, and Michela Alioto-Pier, who all voted no -- have expressed their intentions to keep the public health workers in their jobs for now, many questions still remain.

The biggest one: What will Mayor Gavin Newsom do? He could veto the move, or, he could simply decide not to appropriate the money, as Sup. Elsbernd made very clear during the meeting.

In the corridor just outside the Board Chambers, City Controller Ben Rosenfield told the Guardian that he believes the layoffs will still go into effect. “Everything the mayor has indicated to me is that they do not intend to spend the funds,” he said. “This could be seen as partially an academic exercise.”

But several feet away, SEIU spokesperson Carlos Rivera sounded more optimistic: “Right now, we are just going to celebrate this, and hopefully the mayor will come around and not be the Grinch who Stole Christmas,” he said. “I know he has a big heart.”

The mayor’s discussions with the controller’s office would presumably have been in reference to the roughly $8 million that the board was scheduled to vote on today, not the $1.8 million that eight members did end up voting to spend. Even as Rosenfield spoke with reporters outside the board meeting, a delegation of SEIU Local 1021 members were reportedly meeting with Mayor Gavin Newsom’s chief of staff, Steve Kawa.

The discussion before the Board’s vote was impassioned and emotional. Sup. Michela Alioto-Pier chided members of the Budget & Finance Committee for not doing enough to prevent salary cuts and layoffs earlier in the year, when the budget was under review, and criticized them for revisiting spending decisions that were already made. “We are not living in a fantasy land,” she said. “In the future, we have to take responsibility.”

Sup. John Avalos, chair of the Budget & Finance Committee, shot back, saying he kept possible revenue measures in play as long as he could until it was clear that there would be no support for placing them on the November ballot.

Sup. Campos, meanwhile, framed the whole debate as an issue of fairness: “The question is, with the little money that we do have, what is the fairest way of allocating it?” Campos said. “It isn’t fair to say to one group, ‘you have to sacrifice more.’”

Sup. Sophie Maxwell’s comments seemed to speak directly to those who’d piled pressure upon her in the weeks preceding the vote. “This is a very, very difficult decision,” she said, referencing the vote on the full amount that was meant to prevent layoffs and reverse demotions entirely. “I know these women -- I am these women. When I make a decision, it will be because I think it’s the right decision,” she said. When it came time to vote on the $1.8 million that would push back layoffs for two months, Maxwell’s “yes” vote prompted a round of applause from SEIU members in attendance.

At Sup. Chris Daly’s request, the Board voted 7 to 4 to continue discussion about whether to spend the remaining amount, roughly $6.2 million, till Dec. 15 (Sups. Chu, Alioto-Pier, Elsbernd and Avalos dissented). By then, Daly reasoned, there may be more information in hand about when San Francisco can expect to obtain funding generated by recently passed state legislation, which has to go through a circuitous approval process before the city gets the cash.

At the end of the day, the Supes sent a clear message to the mayor about their priorities by voting to extend the jobs of these city workers at least through the holiday season. For now, the ball is in Newsom’s court.