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County Council Proposes Tougher New Labor Policy

By Bryce McKay July 14, 2010

Today, in line with the new labor policy proposal King County Executive Dow Constantine announced yesterday, the King County Council unanimously endorsed the first revision to county labor policy since the county merged with Metro in 1994.

Labor costs make up 60% of the county’s general fund—some $389 million in wages and benefits. The new labor policy is an attempt to reduce those costs, and to recover part of the $60 million shortfall the county faces next year. All the policies will have to be negotiated with the county's labor unions, which have shown little interest in making concessions so far.

Among the significant proposed changes to the policy:

1. An amendment by King County Council Member Julia Patterson that limits the use of overtime by county employees. The new language reads, “overtime should not be used as a means to accomplish day to day work.” In other words: The county should pay employees regular pay for regular work, and reserve overtime for unforeseen circumstances.

2. In a rare show of bipartisan unity, council chair Bob Ferguson, a Democrat, and council member Kathy Lambert, a Republican, worked together on an amendment that would eliminate provisions that gave county employees an annual cost-of-living adjustment (COLA) of two to six percent a year. Union representatives have said they're willing to consider ditching the automatic two-percent "floor"-level raise if the county will eliminate the six-percent "ceiling," potentially opening the door to COLAs higher than six percent in years when inflation is higher than six percent.

3. Council member Reagan Dunn, a Republican, introduced a provision that would revise the county's layoff policy. According to Dunn, the current policy considered seniority as the only factor in layoffs—his amendment ties the question of whom to cut to merit and skills. For example, if a less senior employee had some special skill set, he or she might be retained over someone who had been with the county longer.

4. Council vice chairwoman Jane Hague introduced a measure that will require employees to pay health care copayments that are on par with comparably sized public and private sector employers' copays.

Dustin Frederick, the co-chair of the King County Labor Coalition, said the council had done “an outstanding job. These are areas that can be fraught with dispute. Thank you very much for involving us in these projects,” Frederick said.

Despite Frederick's seeming enthusiasm, it's far from clear that the county's unions will support the council's labor policy proposal. Sixty-three out of 73 county labor contracts expire this fall. What happens if the two sides emerge from negotiations and nothing has changed?

After a press conference that did little to shed light on that question, Lambert approached me and sat down for an interview.

If labor won't agree to the policy changes, Lambert said, “We vote no"— simple as that. Lambert went on to say that she has been voting no on contract ratifications since January for the exact reason that generated the new labor policy: in her opinion, there have been too many missed opportunities to cut spending in a tight economy

Lambert said she anticipates the upcoming negotiations will be an uphill battle.

“I’ll never forget what one union rep said to me through this process—we went to them and asked them if they could help us out with costs, and he said, ‘The last employee standing will have every benefit we’ve ever worked so hard to get.’” She declined to name the union or the representative.

But she did speak highly of Constantine’s commitment to cut labor costs. “Our relationship with the county executive is superb. He’s focused on solving the problem, and we’ve all agreed what the problem is.”
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