By Raiza Giorgi
Citing devastating financial losses from the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, the City of Solvang laid off almost one-fourth of its staff indefinitely Friday.
“The financial impact on the City has been (and will continue to be) devastating and, as a result of these changes, it has become necessary for the City of Solvang to reduce non-essential staff positions effective March 27, 2020 as listed below,” Xenia Bradford, interim city manager, wrote in an email to staff.
The decision to lay off eight of the 30 workers is being strongly challenged by Teamsters Local 986 representative Jeff Lee, who claimed the action directly constitutes a violation of employee rights since union leaders were not notified.
Affected employees were told to sign “a layoff agreement” that included two weeks severance pay and a month of insurance plus contained a clause that the worker would not file a lawsuit.
“I will be notifying ALL members that these agreements are in no way legally binding and any members that have already signed them will not be legally bound to any of the provisions listed in them,” Lee wrote.
He contended the city violated several articles of the labor agreement, effective July 1, 2019, between Teamsters and Solvang.
Employees laid off include Parks and Recreation Director Fred Lageman, who has been at the city for 24 years and created of the popular programs and events including Haunted House; City Clerk Lisa Martin; Heidi Serbus, recreation clerk; Alex Quiroz, parks maintenance; Frank Saunders, engineering technician; Carol Newsome, office assistant; Diane Christensen, building permit technician; Brynda Messer, assistant planner and non-employee Patrick Meyer, IT contractor.
Lageman is not represented by the Teamsters as he is a department head, according to the union rep.
Martin has been absent since October on paid administrative leave, and when the Star questioned why she was gone, City Attorney Chip Wullbrandt cited personnel matters and said he couldn’t comment further.
An interim city clerk, Daryl Betancur, has been filling the role.
Lee provided a list of emails and text messages he sent to Bradford since March 13, that have gone unanswered including a letter “demanding to bargain over any and all changes to: staffing levels, shift hours, work assignments, attendance policies, sick leave pay, and any other anticipated changes which you wish to implement in response to Coronavirus. No response was received from you.”
When Bradford sent a memo to city employees saying certain positions would be put on paid administrative leave immediately (March 24), the union was not notified, Lee added.
“I sent you an email asking that you keep me updated on any future changes that directly impacted the membership so that I have the opportunity to provide clarification to members who were approaching me with questions in regards to a memo you sent out the previous day. No response was received from you,” Lee wrote March 24.
Three days later, Bradford and Wullbrandt began meeting with the affected employees to issue pink slips.
“Bargaining Unit members were told if they did not sign the agreement, they would not be entitled to two-weeks of severance pay. As stated above, the attached agreement is in no way legally binding and is an example of the City of Solvang’s blatant attempts at circumventing the Teamsters Local 986 Union…,” Lee said.
Lee said he is evaluating his next steps and what is best for the members.
Questions sent Friday by the Star to Bradford and Wullbrandt have not yet been answered.
Friday layoffs came just days after Mayor Ryan Toussaint sent out an email saying the city established a $250,000 Emergency Loan Assistance Program for Solvang small businesses suffering COVID-19-related losses due to the economic cessation.
“Funding for this loan program will come from the City reserves. The program is meant to meet emergency cash flow needs of Solvang small businesses while they wait for SBA Economic Injury Disaster Loan applications, or similar loans, to be processed,” Toussaint said in a written statement.
“It is our hope, that these City-funded micro-loans will help our local businesses to continue to keep more workers employed,” he added. “The loans are aimed at recovery, making sure that there’s something left to recover when the time comes.
The city reportedly had received approximately 85 loan requests, with applications still being accepted through the Solvang Resources website: www.SolvangResources.com/resources/business-resources.
The next council meeting scheduled for Monday, March 30, lists in the consent agenda a contract approval for Bradford, as well as adjusted legal fees.
In the regular business items the council will be discussing the micro-loan business program, the Skytt Mesa landscape and lighting maintenance assessments, adopting the road maintenance and rehabilitation project list.
The Council will also discuss and potentially approve enacting a temporary moratorium on evictions and applying for reimbursement from the California Governor’s Office of Emergency Services. They also have scheduled a public hearing to revoke the business license for Golden Elements.
There was no packet for further elaboration on each item listed, and the City isn’t allowing the public to attend in person. They stated anyone wanting to make a general public comment or to comment on a specific item to email it by noon on Monday to email@example.com to put into the record or to add in their email for their comment to “be read into the record”. They warned due to time limitations not all comments might be read.
If people wish to make a comment by phone call 888-788-0099 and state your name, phone number and which item you wish to speak on and the city clerk will call you at the appropriate time to speak. Advanced notice is asked to speak on the phone by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org.
To view the agenda visit www.cityofsolvang.com and search Agendas and Minutes under City Hall.