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Tired of what they say are sub-par retirement packages, Alameda County prosecutors and public defenders are trying to unionize to tip the bargaining scales in their favor. But the effort is hitting resistance in the district attorney’s office, where prosecutors are at-will employees. DA Tom Orloff says he’s a strong supporter of a better retirement deal, but he doesn’t think labor representation is the way to get it. “I believe — and this is my opinion — that I can be more effective with the county administration in obtaining an enhanced retirement benefit than a labor organization could,” Orloff said. “I have a relationship with the county people,” he added. “Sometimes labor negotiations get very adversarial and people don’t work well together to get something done. That’s an opinion I have.” Those involved say Alameda County Public Defender Diane Bellas has been silently supportive of union efforts in her office. A majority of defenders have already approved unionizing and are waiting for the county to recognize them, said Anne Janks, an organizer with the International Federation of Professional and Technical Engineers Local 21. Some say Orloff’s stance on unionization is slowing the effort, but Janks says she thinks the DA employees will choose labor representation. “I think [Orloff has] got some misconceptions about what a represented workforce is going to mean,” she said. “I think over time he’s going to come to realize it can be a real asset for the DA’s office.” Both groups want what is called “Safety Lite,” a state public employee retirement classification that would increase their retirement income. The classification was created two years ago by state law and gives public attorneys the option to bargain for similar retirement packages offered to public safety employees such as police officers or sheriff’s deputies. For example, Alameda County public attorneys hired after 1983 currently get 1.5 percent of their salary for each year that they work when they retire at 55. Someone who works 30 years before retiring with a $100,000 salary will receive about $45,000 a year in retirement. Under the recent Safety Lite proposal, Alameda County attorneys would get 2.7 percent of their salary for each year they work when they retire at 55. During budget discussions earlier this year, Orloff lobbied the Alameda County Board of Supervisors for the increase, which his employees offered to pay for themselves. But supervisors refused, saying the county’s share of retirement costs could rise and leave taxpayers responsible for the larger packages. Supervisors also declined to give public defenders the retirement package. But Deputy Public Defender J. Dominique Pinkney, who supports labor representation, said a better retirement package is only one area of concern. The office is understaffed and its Hayward branch is often closed in the afternoon as a result, Pinkney said. “It’s a combination,” he said. “It’s difficult for me to take vacation when I want to take it. � It triggers all sorts of staffing problems.” But the retirement scenario is clearly fueling the push for representation, he and others say. State legislation creating a Safety Lite employee designation was passed several years ago, allowing public attorneys to get extra benefits due to the sometimes risky nature of their jobs. George Wood, an Alameda County deputy DA who supports the union effort, said the added benefit helps attract people to the somewhat dangerous environment of criminal law. “We’ve had instances in the courtroom where people have gotten injured, both DAs and public defenders,” Wood said. “We have DAs who have prosecuted people who put out contracts. We have DAs within the state who have to go out and get permits to carry guns because their lives have been threatened,” he added. “There’s no question that our job has an element of danger in it.” Janks said unionizing DAs would improve the recruitment and retaining of employees. “The DAs will feel they have mechanisms to have their voices heard when that’s necessary,” she said. Local 21 is “actively representing” the public defenders, but the county has not yet recognized them as a bargaining unit, Janks said. The group already represents the county counsel’s office. About a dozen public defender and district attorney’s offices throughout California have union representation, including those in San Francisco, Santa Clara, San Diego, Sacramento and San Bernardino counties. In neighboring Contra Costa County, public defenders are unionized, but prosecutors aren’t. Orloff said he believes DAs need better retirement benefits, which were reduced in 1983 for employees hired after that year. He promised to keep pushing the issue. “I think my people deserve it,” he said. “And we came up with what I think is a very unique plan.” “It’s not dead yet,” Orloff added. “I’m optimistic about getting an enhanced retirement benefit in the future, when times get better.”

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