Frustrated after months of talking to Oxnard city administrators without getting anywhere, Oxnard city staff who say they are underpaid are taking their case to the Sept. 10 Oxnard City Council meeting in hope of jump-starting contract discussions.

“We’ve been negotiating for nine months. We submitted proposals to management so that the council could have them before the budget cycle started in April,” said Rachel Flores, Service Employees International Union 721’s regional director.

“We’ve been bargaining since January and we’ve given them a concrete, comprehensive proposal,” said Rhea Voll, SEIU’s Oxnard chapter president, “and they’ve passed the budget, I don’t know why they didn’t give us a solid reason.”

“They came back with bad news: No decisions” by the City Council, said Flores, whose union represents much of Oxnard’s white-collar staff, including librarians, crime analysts, traffic engineers and staff who work with youth in recreation programs.

“About 70 percent of those are women; a lot of them are single moms,” said Flores, who wants the City Council to approve a contract that restores incremental salary steps, something other city staff have but that SEIU members agreed to give up more than a decade ago for merit-based raises.

“We had a lot of people who were getting close to retirement at the top of the pay scale. They didn’t have a lot of places to go unless they got a promotion,” explained Rhea Voll, SEIU’S Oxnard chapter president. “That prompted them to go off the step system, allowing them to increase their pay scale.”

But the arrangement backfired when the economy tanked several years ago, and then-City Manager Ed Sotello declared a moratorium on all merit pay raises, a policy that has not changed.

Now there are staff at the bottom of their pay scale who would be near the top if they were in a different bargaining unit, said Voll, adding that nearly 100 employees who were recommended for raises in 2007 and 2008 never got them.

“Meanwhile, in that same period, three other bargaining units got 5 percent step increases,” Voll said.

Voll and other SEIU members believe Sotello and the current management are taking advantage of wording in that contract that says the city manager “may” grant merit pay increases, implying that raises are not guaranteed.

Management’s lead negotiator, Michelle Tellez of Oxnard’s Human Resources Department, said she could not comment on discussions while they were still taking place. A source familiar with the negotiations, however, said Tellez has indicated she wants clearer direction from the City Council because “We can’t keep negotiating with ourselves.”

Oxnard Mayor Tim Flynn would not comment.

Councilwomen Carmen Ramirez said collective bargaining regulations prevented her from saying anything specific, but indicated she sympathizes with SEIU staff, noting that real wages have dropped nationally.

“I want to see our rank and file paid better; we just have to figure out how,” Ramirez said.

The last time the council had an update on the negotiations was at the July 23 meeting before going on its annual summer break. At that same meeting, the council was asked by staff managers that they be recognized as a bargaining unit as well.

Voll notes managers have come to her to ask what they can do to give raises to employees who deserve them.

“They feel bad about this, they don’t know what to do,” said Voll. “They have staff in their other bargaining units who are getting pay increases — some are getting both merit and step raises.”