Port Angeles bomb threat sets off debate on wages

By Rob Ollikainen
Peninsula Daily News

PORT ANGELES — Hourly workers who went home after a bomb scare at the Clallam County Courthouse on March 28 had to take leave time to make up for it.

Those who remained on standby were paid in full, County Administrator Jim Jones said in a commissioners work session last week.

The county courthouse and Armory Square Mall in Port Angeles were evacuated after the bomb threat was received at 2:01 p.m. that Friday.

Two Port Angeles men, Tony Deason, 43, and Steven Alan Fortman Sr., 49, were arrested last week for investigation of making the threats.

County Treasurer Selinda Barkhuis brought a draft resolution to county commissioners Tuesday that would have authorized Jones to pay county employees for a partial-day closure of the courthouse.

Commissioners did not add the resolution to their agenda.

Staff ‘punished’

“I would like to know, as an elected official talking to you, as elected official to elected official, why my staff should be punished for having to leave the county courthouse when they were in the middle of work,” Barkhuis told commissioners.

She said staff “had to scramble — stressful — locking up their cash, looking out for the county’s public funds.”

Staff members went home only because the courthouse was closed, she said, adding that “they were ready, willing and able to work.”

Jones said he told Chief Civil Sheriff’s Deputy Alice Hoffman, one of the evacuation site coordinators, that employees could leave with their supervisor’s permission but that hourly workers who decided to go home would have to take leave time.

At that point, county employees already had been released by incident commander Brian Smith of the Port Angeles Police Department, Hoffman said in a Friday interview.

Hoffman said some people left without knowing whether they would be paid.

“Obviously, anybody standing there on the standby needs to be paid,” said Jones, who was in Seattle when the bomb threats were received.

City police said in a news release that employees at the courthouse and Armory Square had been “sent home for the day” before 4:10 p.m.

The “all-clear” was given for people to re-enter the courthouse at 4:25 p.m., Jones said.

The courthouse closes to the public at 4:30 p.m.

Clallam County has a long-standing compact with its citizens that hourly workers are paid only for the time they work, Jones said.

County workers have taken leave time during snow events in the past, he said.

“We do have another policy that says if you are on standby, you will be paid, period,” Jones said.

“End of story. . . . I felt it was handled on Friday.”

Jones said it wouldn’t be fair to pay those who went home when other workers remained outside the courthouse on standby.

“I’m good with this administrator’s decision,” board chair Mike Chapman said.

Barkhuis took issue with an email that Jones sent to county employees Monday morning that said he lacked the authority to provide discretionary administrative leave.

Emergency policy

The emergency policy “actually does have a provision that authorizes the administrator to pay for a partial-day closure when the courthouse is inaccessible,” Barkhuis said.

“This is the problem that we’re having,” she added. “We’re being told things that are not true.”

While most employees understood the policy, Jones said, a handful complained that they were never told they wouldn’t be paid if they went home.

Jones on Tuesday said the policy “does give me the authority to declare a partial-day closure.”

“Even with the authority, I didn’t declare it,” Jones told commissioners.

“On Monday, I didn’t re-declare it because I wanted to have a conversation with you, and I felt going back on it was the wrong thing to do.”

Chapman said he spoke with employees who remained on standby and witnessed others driving away.

“Fair enough,” Chapman said. “It was a Friday afternoon. It was sunny. They started their weekend early.

“I just assumed they were taking vacation time after checking in [with their supervisor].”

Chapman said the remaining employees were helping the public and “discharging their duties to the best of their ability.”

“And they should be paid because they stayed at their post,” Chapman said.

“This was not a situation where everybody was sent home. Everybody wasn’t sent home. And, in fact, many people stayed, and rightfully so.”

After the work session, Barkhuis maintained that the county does have a provision for discretionary leave and that some employees were never told they had to use comp time.

‘Deserves an answer’

Commissioner Mike Doherty said Barkhuis “deserves an answer” and suggested Jones contact other municipalities to see how they handle similar events.

“It could be we have some sort of a contingency plan to cover this,” Doherty said, “looking at what would be the needs to close things down or reopen, and then what are the budget impacts of some of these things.”

“I’d just as soon we do it very methodically,” he added.

Commissioner Jim McEntire said he was “reluctant to make policy on the fly.”

“It seems like to me our policy leaves it to the discretion of the administrator as kind of the custodian of the workforce to make the determination,” he said.

“If we need to revisit the policy sometime in the future, then I’d be willing to consider that.”

Jones, too, said he would welcome “definitive guidance for me or any future administrator on how to do this.”

“I do think it is in the best interest of our employees to take care of them if we can,” he said.

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Reporter Rob Ollikainen can be reached at 360-452-2345, ext. 5072, or at rollikainen@peninsuladailynews.com.

Last modified: April 05. 2014 5:07PM
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