As Vaccine Deadline Nears, Negotiator In Charge of Police Bargaining Leaves City

By Paul Kiefer

The window of opportunity for the Seattle Police Officers Guild (SPOG) to negotiate a deal with the city about the enforcement of the city’s new mandatory vaccination policy, which takes effect on October 18, is closing.

And this Friday, those negotiations will hit another snag: Ned Burke, the city negotiator responsible for bargaining with SPOG, is leaving Seattle’s labor relations unit. Jeff Clark, the interim head of the labor relations unit since the departure of former director Jana Sangy in March, has few options to replace Burke at the negotiating table, so Burke’s exit poses a challenge for the city as the deadline to reach an agreement with SPOG approaches.

Because SPOG represents public safety employees, the guild has an option that other public employee unions lack: as a last resort, the guild can bring its disagreements with the city before an arbitrator. After hearing arguments from both SPOG and the city, the arbitrator would unilaterally decide how the city will implement the vaccine requirement for police officers, including whether officers will get a grace period after October 18 to get vaccinated instead of facing immediate termination.  Burke would have been responsible for presenting the city’s argument to an arbitrator; instead, the city may need to find someone new to take on that high-stakes role.

As the sole holdout among Seattle’s public safety unions, SPOG runs the risk that an arbitrator could dismiss their demands as a tactic to stall the enforcement of the mandate, leaving their members to accept the city’s terms or lose their jobs.

With negotiations stalled, arbitration appears to be the most likely end to the standoff. And as the October 18 deadline approaches, SPOG is isolated. When the Coalition of City Unions reached an agreement with the city about the mandate last month, the Seattle Police Management Association—the union representing SPD lieutenants and captains, which initially bargained alongside SPOG—split with the guild and joined the larger coalition, foregoing its right to arbitration.

While SPOG and other public safety employee unions often prefer to take the gamble of arbitration instead of reaching a compromise with the city—in the past, arbitrators have often sided with police unions—the guild is in a challenging position this month. As the sole holdout among Seattle’s public safety unions, SPOG runs the risk that an arbitrator could dismiss their demands as a tactic to stall the enforcement of the mandate, leaving their members to accept the city’s terms or lose their jobs.

Despite the stalled negotiations with SPOG, city departments will begin issuing “at-risk” letters, which warn employees who haven’t yet submitted proof of vaccination of the impending deadline, on Wednesday.

The letter that will be sent to unvaccinated members of the coalition of city unions offers instructions for how to take advantage of the buffer time included in the new agreement for employees who decide to get vaccinated at the last minute.

As of Wednesday, 292 sworn SPD employees have yet to submit proof of vaccination; two-thirds of those officers are assigned to patrol. Meanwhile, of the 698 city employees have requested exemptions from the vaccine mandate, roughly 111 work for the police department—a group not included in the department’s count of employees who haven’t submitted proof of vaccination.

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