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Fairfax County employees struggle with rising costs of living, unions say

Tammie Wondong Ware, president of the Fairfax County Government Employees Union, talks before the Board of Supervisors (courtesy SEIU Virginia 512)

Fairfax County government employees called on the Board of Supervisors to support workers with its new budget amid staff retention issues and financial pressures.

Union representatives discussed the impact of inflation and rising housing and health care costs on their members’ ability to live where they work during public hearings this week on the proposed $4.8 billion budget.

Leslie Houston, a learning disabilities teacher at Braddock Elementary and president-elect of the Fairfax Education Association, said some of her colleagues can’t afford to live and shop in the area.

“In education, we must be about the kids, but that is not possible if we are not taking care of the people who are taking care of the kids,” Houston said.

Janette Corcelius, a teacher who said she lives in the Mount Vernon District with her family, stated that she couldn’t afford to live there on her own even though she’s worked for Fairfax County Public Schools for six years.

“My situation is not unique,” she said. “This is a struggle Millenials and Gen Z come across when trying to live and work in this area. Affordable housing…support is necessary.”

The Fairfax County School Board put forth a $3.3 billion budget plan in February that includes 4% market scale adjustments and step increases for school employees. It will adopt its budget May 26.

The county’s advertised budget for fiscal year 2023, which begins on July 1, would fully fund the school board’s request, which would increase the transferred funds by nearly $112.7 million over last year.

For non-school government employees, the county budget proposes a 4.01% market rate adjustment, adding a 25-year longevity step and providing additional merit and performance increases.

Fairfax Workers Coalition Executive Director David Lyons said most workers are paid well below the midlevel of their pay scales, especially in the trades.

“We are no longer fully competitive in today’s marketplace,” he said. “You need to bring your workers up to scale.”

The Fairfax County Government Employees Union, a chapter of SEIU Virginia 512 that represents sanitation workers, social workers, child educators, and others, requested that the Board of Supervisors protect the plan’s pay increases and lower health care costs for workers.

“The past two years have been unlike anything we’ve ever experienced,” President Tammie Wondong Ware said. “Through it all, your county employees have been on the job, keeping everyone safe.”

Wondong Ware also noted that unions are expected to begin negotiating contracts with the county at the start of the new fiscal year. In a historic shift, the county board agreed last October to allow collective bargaining, but the county is still laying the groundwork to make that happen.

“We look forward to negotiating a contract which ensures…that every year, your workforce receives fair pay, affordable health care, safe staffing levels and healthy workplaces,” Wondong Ware said.

Karen Sheffield, chair of the Employee Advisory Council, which supports over 10,000 employees, said the group applauds the budget’s proposed compensation increases but felt the financial support could go further.

She said many workers are leaving the county government for jobs with better compensation and more options for work-life balance.

“Help us to curtail the exodus,” Sheffield said, calling for a 5.9% market rate adjustment.

The Board of Supervisors will determine how to address competing priorities that range from tax relief and calls to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to pay equity for the public defender’s office at a budget markup meeting on April 16.

The board will adopt the new county budget on May 10.

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