Politics & Government

Split may be forming in state Federation over adequacy of worker contract agreement

Just days after Gov. Jay Inslee’s negotiators and the Washington Federation of State Employees reached a tentative two-year contract agreement on pay increases, some members are pushing back, saying it isn’t nearly enough.

Joe Nilsson, a veteran WFSE member, former union negotiator and one-time state Democratic Party treasurer, said he plans to vote against the contract during the online ratification process getting under way. Nilsson, who works for the Department of Labor and Industries, is urging others to do the same – and it appears at least one current federation board member may do so, too.

Nilsson, who has been part of past negotiating teams for the federation, said the 3 percent pay increase proposed for July 2015 and at least 1.8 percent in July 2016 are not enough and relegate state workers to a status as “second class citizens.”

“This is a first ‘No’ vote for me on a contract,” Nilsson said in an email to reporters. He said pay for state workers lags that of counterparts in other governments and the private sector; he estimated that 48,000 of the state’s general government workers are paid less than peers for similar work.

The union is holding firm that the contract represents progress.

“I can only say what the bargaining team said in voting to accept the agreement: they recommended ratification,” federation spokesman Tim Welch said. “I think once members see the full summary and the dozens and dozens of improvements they’ll agree.”

After six years without raises, Welch added, “there’s a lot of pent-up demand.”

In addition to the cost-of-living adjustments for the federation’s more than 30,000 members in general-government agencies, the agreement gives about 4,500 workers additional raises of at least 2.5 percent if they are in jobs where pay lagged or new duties and demands have been added to the position. Some one-time adjustments would go far higher.

In the case of state corrections-records technicians, pay would be increased 10 percent. There would be one-time, 10-percent raises for certain Department of Fish and Wildlife biologists, park aides, and some Liquor Control Board enforcement officers. Department of Labor and Industries auditors would see raises of 7.5 percent to 15 percent, according to the labor contract’s appendix.

The governor’s Office of Financial Management has estimated that the pay adjustments would cost the state’s general fund about $250 million over two years if extended to all employees, both union and nonunion, in agencies where the federation has workers. OFM also says it still must weigh the cost of all labor contracts against state revenues forecast in November before deciding whether the proposed pay hikes are feasible.

A salary survey by consultants for the state Office of Financial Management helps to back up Nilsson’s claim that workers’ pay is falling short.

The report, done by national firm Segal Consulting and released in April, said 81 percent of workers’ pay lagged that of peers doing similar work in the public and private sectors (where comparisons could be made). That same report found pay gaps were far wider in some jobs than others, although pension and health benefits for state employees were very competitive.

Katie Nelson, a member of the federation’s executive board, said she has received more queries from skeptical union members than at any time since she’s been on the board. Speaking for herself as a Department of Social and Health Services line employee and not a board member, she said the wage proposal is too little and she opposes it. But she says she’s also told those who want to fight the agreement that rejection risks locking current pay in place for another year.

“I’m hearing from a lot of people who are not happy. I’m getting a lot of questions. I’m very honest with people that there’s risks no matter which way you go,’’ Nelson said.

Although the agreement ends a pay drought that has provided no cost of living raises since 2008, she said it simply does not catch up to rising costs.

Nelson noted that pension contribution rates for Public Employees Retirement System Plan 2 members are going up next year as well as out-of-pocket health-care costs, and both cut into the buying power of any raise. Negotiations are still under way with a coalition of two-dozen unions on the health care package for 2016-17.

“It’s very possible, and what has happened in the past, is if they give us a COLA (cost-of-living adjustment) they take it back with increased medical (costs) ... So it is still possible this contract will result in a lower paycheck … even though in theory there’s been a COLA there,” Nelson said. “I think the state needs to start paying people what they are worth.’’