PORT TOWNSEND — An overflow crowd of Jefferson County employees appeared before the county commissioners to express their concerns about mediated bargaining of their contract, which expired in December 2017.
Members of the United Food & Commercial Workers 21 (UFCW 21) on Monday focused on issues of arbitration, staff retention, leave time, pay and comparable benefits in other counties.
County employees numbering 115 are represented by the union in a variety of departments including environmental health, public health, community development and the assessor’s office.
“We have been in negotiations since the contract expired,” said Tom Geiger, communications director for UFCW 21, in a phone interview Monday.
“We’re now in mediation and the county has brought in a third party to mediate a new contract.
“It is substandard compared with employees in neighboring counties like Clallam and Kitsap counties,” Geiger said. “The issues are pay and vacation time, and a weakening of the arbitration language that exists in the current contract. It’s not clear why there is a desire to weaken the language.”
Brad Stone of Port Townsend presented the commissioners with a petition signed by more than 75 union employees that explains their position. It reads:
“We’ve proposed to accrue more leave time which will get us closer to the accruals of our neighboring counties. Unfortunately, management is unwilling to bargain new time, which tells us they are not interested in maintaining community standards.
“We made some changes to our grievance procedure that we thought would fix the issues management has with our Arbitration Clause but they are not interested. After citing only two occasions in the last ten years where this was an issue, we will stand firm on this important issue and are not going to let them gut our Arbitration Rights.”
Linda Atkins, a member of the bargaining team, said: “We are working hard on behalf of our clients and the citizens of the county and feel frustrated for what seems to be a lack of support and value placed on our service.
“We tried to be responsive to the concerns expressed by the county about the grievance process, but our efforts have been rejected. This sends a message that the employees are not valued and our rights for arbitration should be limited.”
Atkins said that the arbitration process “is an important element for a sense of fairness and equity, and the current process has only been used twice since 2006.
“It does not appear to have been abused and we see no reason to make substantial changes to what has been proposed. The language has been in our contract for many years and we want to retain it.”
Another area of concern addressed by the group was staff retention.
Employees said that each time one of their co-workers leaves for a position with better benefits and pay, it takes weeks or months to replace them.
Because many of the positions are in specialty areas, they are not easily replaced. This means remaining staff has to take on additional work until the position is filled.
The group said they were there to make the commissioners aware of the situation. They asked them to get directly involved in the negotiations so there could be a quick resolution.
Commissioner David Sullivan thanked everyone for their comments and said, “You have my respect.
“I’ve struggled with this budget and we’ve seen the staff struggle with this budget,” he said.
“We saw the staff take big cuts back at the beginning of the recession and the difficulty of not recovering from that. We could blame the Legislature for that 1 percent issue and all of that, which is a reality we face.
“I heard a lot of comments that aren’t about money,” Sullivan added. “Those are things we should be able to work out.”
Said Philip Morley, county administrator: “You guys are awesome. To a certain extent we are constrained by the resources that as a governmental entity we don’t have. That’s part of the issue. We are certainly looking at some of the other language and changes you’ve brought to light.”
Commissioner Kathleen Kler spoke to those who addressed the commissioners.
“It’s painful to hear and acknowledge that those who work so hard for the county are feeling unappreciated,” she said.
“We are a county with a lot of area and fewer resources than I wish we had. You are our greatest resource, and when we find that we’re not taking care of that, that’s a wake-up call.”
Commissioner Kate Dean acknowledged the concerns voiced by the group.
“You work every day under extremely challenging circumstances. I appreciate that,” she said.
“These are supposed to be the good jobs in the county. You all could be paid more somewhere else. Let’s restore the good faith effort as we negotiate. Thank you for your polite tone today and for understanding the budget constraints we face because we all face them together.”
The commissioners said they will read all the comments presented.
The next mediated bargaining session is scheduled for Friday.
Jefferson County Editor/Reporter Jeannie McMacken can be reached at 360-385-2335 or at [email protected].