When the San Joaquin County Board of Supervisors voted to delay Camille Zapata’s appointment as chief of staff to District 2 Supervisor Kathy Miller at its Jan. 26 meeting, Zapata was very much disappointed. But she was not surprised.
Today (Feb. 16) is Zapata’s first day on the job, though she would have started on Feb. 1 if she had been approved in time to fill the role that was recently vacated from Miller’s previous chief of staff retiring. But due to concerns over fair compensation and merit — brought on by what Chair Tom Patti and Supervisors Miguel Villapudua and Robert Rickman attributed to Zapata’s lack of experience working in a county role — Zapata’s starting date was pushed back and re-voted on last Tuesday.
While Patti, Villapudua and Rickman cited fairness to other staff and wise use of taxpayer dollars as the main reasons for their pushback, Zapata and her supporters saw this as a trial of equality and equity.
“I took this position with an open heart and mind, seeking to ensure the board is responsive to the community needs, especially in unprecedented times that have left our black and brown communities bearing the brunt of the COVID-19 pandemic,” said Zapata in a written testimony between the two meetings. “I have been feeling a mix of emotions about this, but the thought that has grounded me has been, ‘What if this were happening to a woman I know? My colleague, my friend, my cousin, my aunt. How would I react if this were happening to her?’”
The issue at hand was if Zapata should make a “step 5” salary, which is the highest of the pay tiers for employees of San Joaquin County. This would put Zapata at making a little over $79,000 per year, on par with the other chiefs of staff already serving. Normally, the “step 3” tier salary was standard for entry-level legislative assistants, the formal title of county chiefs of staff.
According to data from Transparent California, legislative assistants for the county made regular salaries ranging from $75,508 to 76,065 in 2019. All legislative assistance made an equal pay of $69,949 regular salary five years prior in 2014.
After an hour-and-a-half of deliberation, the board finally approved Zapata’s hiring 5-0. This was in part thanks to rallied support from throughout the county, brought on by a wave of backlash following what was publicly perceived as an act of discrimination. Previously at the Jan. 26 meeting, the vote lost at 3-2, with Supervisors Miller and Chuck Winn being the only two to approve.
“Today we have brought to light an inequity issue that many womxn normally have to deal with in isolation, advocating for equal pay for equal work. And we won,” Zapata said in a public statement.
“We felt this inequity in our gut and the people power we showed today was extraordinary and proved our community is ready for this fight.”
Zapata’s story garnered the interest of many across the county. This resulted in a multitude of letters and public comments being submitted to the Board of Supervisors prior to its Feb. 9 meeting when Zapata’s employment was slated to be voted on.
The public perception was that Zapata was a victim of ageism and sexism, after members of the Board had questioned both her qualifications and Miller’s hiring tactics and line of thought when proposing Zapata’s starting wage.
Proficiency in public relations and social media were some of the top qualities that Miller was looking for when seeking out her next right-hand woman. Miller’s goal for her last two years in office was to enhance transparency and communications to her constituents.
She knew this task in finding the perfect candidate would be difficult, with her time left serving as supervisor being a major factor. Many qualified candidates, Miller found, were not willing to take the risk of potentially needing to look for new employment not far down the road. It was at this time that she discussed with human resources about offering a more competitive salary.
“This was about it being a difficult to recruit position, because of the short-term nature. That's what it was all about. I would not have offered it if I hadn't already been having a tough time,” said Miller. “I mean, really good people always have other options. Always. And Camille is very good at what she does. And she is very well respected, as evidenced by the fact we have never received that level of public comment before on an issue like this.”
Zapata is a 25-year-old Latinx and Stockton native who graduated with honors from U.C. Santa Cruz in 2018 with a bachelor’s degree in Anthropology. During her time both in school and upon graduating, Zapata hit the ground running in her professional career, serving in both campaign management and communications roles. Most recently she served as the campaign manager and communications director for California Senator Susan Eggman.
“Up until only recently, our state has failed to protect those who deal with gender-based wage depreciation ... Although this particular instance is focused on Camille Zapata, the question of her salary is indicative of another issue in our community: Why do so many of our brightest youth leave? It is because we have not offered them opportunities to succeed, and we have denied them a seat at the table. This must end,” said Eggman in a statement to the board.
“In the case of Ms. Zapata — I know her work, I know her abilities, and I know that she is eminently qualified to be Supervisor Miller’s next Chief of Staff. If there’s a concern that her starting salary is higher than others who are also deserving of the same wage, then the issue doesn’t appear to be that Ms. Zapata’s starting salary does not match her qualifications.”
Zapata’s story even caught the attention of residents of Tracy, some who also wrote in to the board, including former city council candidate and activist William Muetzenberg.
“I believe that Ms. Zapata is more than qualified for this position. Despite its limited nature, where other candidates withdrew consideration, Ms. Zapata has accepted these conditions. Her experience and expertise is a welcome benefit to the constituents of the Second Supervisorial District,” wrote Muetzenberg. “We cannot consider anything less, as this would imply that the duties outlined for this job are not credible for the wages and incomes already offered to other employees working similar and/or equal occupations.”
Each supervisor weighed in on their reservations regarding Zapata’s proposed salary. For Patti and Villapudua, fairness for their long-serving chiefs of staff was the main issue. Patti advocated for what he referred to as the county’s merit-based system, in which workers essentially worked upward to higher salary compensation over the years.
“I want to affirm my support for an equal, diverse and qualified workforce that makes hiring and compensation decisions based on merit...Initially, our interest is that we have hard working county employees, including staff that works for this Board who had to earn their steps on the previously established compensation scale,” Patti said before voting took place. “I believe taxpayers of San Joaquin County support this approach. We are tasked with being a steward of taxpayer dollars. Myself and others take that responsibility very seriously.”
Rickman, former mayor of Tracy who now represents District 5, also brought up concerns about logistics and following what county ordinances were already in place. After questioning if Miller had consulted with the San Joaquin County administrator, acting administrator Matthew Paulin expressed his stance to be aligned with Miller, human resources and the county clerk to approve Zapata’s hiring at the proposed salary based on the discussions of the two board meetings.
In light of the recent discussions surrounding Zapata’s hiring, the board agreed that it was time to evaluate the chief of staff position to possibly be on a “no step” hiring system, that way future chiefs of staff would be able to enter the role on an equal playing field. Miller explained that this may also include discussions of back pay for present chiefs of staff to level out their pay from when they first started their roles.
Through her own advocacy, Zapata pointed out statistics from the National Partnership for Women & Families, which highlighted that women make 53 to 85 cents less than their male counterparts in the workforce. Though she was unable to defend herself in the board meetings that would decide her fate with the county, she still thought it was important that her own voice be heard during all the controversy. She spoke out on social media and wrote “My Testimony While Fighting for Equal Pay for Equal Work” on the blog site Medium.
“My close friend was like, ‘What gave you the strength to do this?’” she said. “I had the strength to do this because I wanted to make sure that any other woman that followed in my footsteps would be on an equal playing field. I thought about what if somebody were even more marginalized, that doesn’t have the public support or the resources to gather support for her case? This was so important for me to go up against, so every other woman that comes after me won’t face this. It’s too important.”
• Contact Brianna Guillory at email@example.com or 209-830-4229.