The union representing 11,000 San Diego County government employees began recent labor negotiations with lofty talk about a broad set of policy goals to help low-income San Diegans. Now, it’s fighting for the right to wear flip-flops.

In June, the county put out a memo straight out of “Office Space”: It was OK, county chief administrative officer Helen Robbins-Meyer declared, for county workers to wear business casual attire all summer, instead of just on casual Fridays.

That prompted Service Employees International Union Local 221 to file a formal complaint with the state’s Public Employment Relations Board.

The union argued that the relaxed dress code, known as “Cool Summer Days in the County,” was an illegal move by the county because the union wasn’t involved in coming up with it. Worse, by suggesting employees couldn’t go too far – jeans and sneakers are OK, but shorts, flip flops and torn or revealing clothing are not –  the union argued the county was de facto imposing a dress code for the rest of the year, which the union rejects.

The county, for its part, claims it in fact has numerous operational dress codes for county employees: Librarians can’t wear spandex. Staff in the sheriff’s office must wear ties, unless the forecast says it will be 85 degrees or more (but medical examiners can’t wear bolo ties, ever). Shorts are generally prohibited, but if someone from the county agriculture department is out inspecting eggs, shorts are OK – if they are covered by a biosecurity suit.

Instead of fighting the union, the county rescinded its offer for SEIU members. Non-union workers are free to wear jeans instead of dress pants, even on a Monday. That put the union in quite the spot. Suddenly, SEIU members were left wondering what the union is fighting for if it’s seemingly against comfortable clothing.

Micki Bursalyan, Local 221’s staff director, said some members have told the union to drop the whole issue and focus on getting them a raise, but hundreds have said the dress code is an issue worth fighting about.

“Yes, we are nitpicking, but every single time these employees have the right to bargain, they want that right,” Bursalyan said.

SEIU’s leadership believes it must fight for the little things to win the big things. The big things at this point are not just raises, but also a vast expansion of the county’s welfare program, reforms to the criminal justice system and creation of a countywide “sanctuary” policy for immigrants.

The dress code complaint is one of many flying back and forth between the union and the county as negotiations over pay and these other issues have broken down. Both have accused each other of negotiating in bad faith and are asking the state’s labor board to step in. Some of the union’s leaders and members have suggested it will eventually go on strike if things can’t be worked out.

In the past, the relaxed dress code would not have been an issue.

“I think the difference here is it’s a bargaining year,” Bursalyan said. “So I think the difference is we’re on the lookout for policy changes.”

For now, it seems unlikely the dress code contretemps will amount to much. If an SEIU member is working alongside an employee who is not in the union and both are wearing Tommy Bahama shirts on a Tuesday, the county is unlikely to send the union member home to change.

“We intend to be reasonable,” county spokesman Michael Workman said.

Ry Rivard

Ry Rivard was formerly a reporter for Voice of San Diego. He wrote about water and power.

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