State worker labor-contract talks are off to a quiet start this week and won’t shift into full gear on pay issues until after the government’s next revenue forecast on June 18. Even so, negotiators with the Washington Federation of State Employees, the largest union representing state workers, handed an initial proposal to Gov. Jay Inslee’s bargaining team on Tuesday that addressed “non-economic” issues important to employees.
Union spokesman Tim Welch said he could not publicly identify the issues except to say they included hours of work. Typically the union also bargains for specific language that governs disputes with management and grievances, as well as safety issues for workers in riskier jobs.
“Compensation issues are in the parking lot until more information comes in,’’ Welch added after a partial day’s talks ended mid-afternoon at the Thurston County Fairgrounds in Lacey. The federation represents close to 40,000 workers in government and higher education.
Ralph Thomas, spokesman for Inslee’s Office of Financial Management, also declined to give specifics about what the governor’s office considers a reasonable pay adjustment after a six-year stretch in which workers have not had cost of living adjustments. Nearly a third of workers do get small step raises.
Inslee has made it very clear that he thinks state workers need a pay raise in 2015 after going six budget years in a row without a cost of living adjustment. On Saturday the Democrat repeated his support for adjusting pay upward during remarks made to about 500 federation policy committee members who were meeting at SeaTac.
“It’s just clear to me that it’s unacceptable that state employees have gone so long without a general pay increase,” Welch quoted the governor as saying in the union’s email alert sent to members.
Those comments were in line with what Inslee told reporters in December, when he proposed a supplemental budget that omitted cost-of-living raises for teachers for the sixth consecutive year. Inslee said at the time that 2015 is the year that pay adjustments should take place – for teachers and state workers – even though lawmakers also face a big financial lift if they want to also fully fund public schools in response to a state Supreme Court order.
“Teachers have not gotten their voter mandated cost-of-living adjustments since 2008. That situation is untenable and I fully intend to rectify it … in the next biennial budget,” Inslee said at the time. “State employees have also gone without COLA increases since 2008. That is just too long to wait.’ ’
Inslee received a standing ovation from the federation for his remarks over the weekend but he also told the union that budget talks are shaping up to be another difficult year.
Health insurance is the other major piece of negotiations, and that is going to be handled separate from the pay and working conditions issues. On healthcare, a coalition of more than two-dozen unions negotiates for identical coverage, and Welch said those talks won’t happen until later in the summer.
In 2013-15 contracts, state employees saw temporary furloughs draw to an end after running two years. The furloughs in effect reduced pay and hours worked by 3 percent from July 2011 to June 2013 for most of the state's 60,000 general-government workers. In the current contract, employees got no COLAs in 2013 but were promised 1 percent adjustments in July 2014 if state revenues hit certain targets, which did not happen.
Under Initiative 732, public-school employees and some community college workers are supposed to receive annual cost of living pay adjustments tied to inflation rates in Seattle. The Great Recession prompted lawmakers - on bipartisan votes - to suspend the terms of that initiative for three straight biennial budgets, saving hundreds of millions of dollars that otherwise would have had to be made up by cutting other programs or raising taxes.
OFM has tentatively earmarked $216 million for K-12 pay adjustments in 2015-17. That assumes COLAs of 1.3 percent in 2015 and 1.9 percent in 2016. The budget agency has not earmarked a specific dollar amount for state worker pay adjustments.
The pay contracts are supposed to be completed and ratified by unions before Oct. 1 so OFM can include the costs in Inslee’s two-year budget proposal for 2015-17. Once pay adjustments are in the budget, the divided Legislature can either reject them entirely or enact them.