City workers at facilities including Laguna Honda Hospital and Zuckerberg San Francisco General Hospital have been providing essential services during the pandemic. (Kevin N. Hume/S.F. Examiner)

SF should not balance its budget on the backs of public workers providing essential services

By Theresa Rutherford

San Francisco is reckoning with the impacts of COVID-19, systemic racism, and an economy that increasingly works only for the wealthy. To address this pandemic’s disproportionate impact on communities of color and the resulting recession, we need a bold vision that provides relief to those hit the hardest.

Instead, on July 31 the Mayor’s office submitted a budget proposal that fails to address the seriousness of this moment and instead balances the budget on the backs of the public workers risking their lives to provide disaster services.

Now, as the Board of Supervisors finalizes San Francisco’s next budget, we need a plan that immediately tackles the pandemic’s surge in our city and aggressively invests in the public services that will fuel a recovery for all.

After the 2008 crash, public workers were largely pushed out of San Francisco. Many were no longer able to afford to live in the Bay Area, let alone our city limits. I uprooted my children and relocated my family from San Francisco to Sacramento and still commute 2-3 hours one way to my job as a nurse assistant at Laguna Honda Hospital. Many were less lucky—some workers who couldn’t afford the long daily commute back then slept in their cars outside the hospital for two or three days at a time.

Staffing was stretched to dangerous levels, services were gutted, and vacancies went unfilled. Many of the city’s lowest-paid staff, most of whom were Black, brown, or API workers and women, received pink slips. This devastated public services, the workers who provide them, and residents who depended on them. We still feel the impact of those decisions today—we cannot afford the same austerity during a worldwide health crisis.

In the wake of COVID-19, city workers have given back $50 million in scheduled raises, with a potential $50 million more the following year, while risking our lives every day. We increasingly do more with less. City workers are caring for COVID-19 patients in our hospitals, working at testing sites, ensuring our most vulnerable are housed at homeless hotels, and more—but as of June 1, San Francisco had over $560 million in annualized vacant budgeted positions.

These sacrifices by San Francisco’s workforce have covered most of the projected budget shortfall. There is a path forward that doesn’t rely on further harmful cuts.

First, supervisors must tap into the city’s rainy day and reserve funds. Over the last five years, when reserves reached an all-time high, general fund revenues outpaced expenses by a cumulative $1.9 billion. Workers are responsible for growing this reserve by forgoing the cost of living raises we need to survive for years. What better time than now to use these funds to protect services and residents?

Secondly, San Francisco must curtail expensive contracting- and granting-out. This practice is wasteful and expensive. In the last recession, the city’s reliance on the staffing registry meant hospitals and healthcare teams lost dedicated, long-time staff members. Patients had a new face at the bedside every day, impacting their continuity of care.

Finally, we need new revenue. It is past time for billionaires and wealthy corporations, who benefitted from years of growth and unchecked income inequality, to do their part. We must pass measures like Prop 15 reclaim badly needed revenue for public services from the ultra-wealthy.

We cannot praise frontline workers as essential one moment and then treat them like they are expendable in the next. More austerity means job and quality of life losses that would hurt us all and disproportionately impact the vulnerable communities who rely on us most.

Theresa Rutherford is a nurse assistant at Laguna Honda Hospital and the elected vice president of Service Employees International Union Local 1021, which represents 16,000 San Francisco City workers.

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