Omicron Hits Police, Library Workers Hard; Longtime City Union Rep Will Head Labor Relations Office

1. In the past month, the COVID-19 virus tore through the Seattle Police Department, placing dozens of officers in quarantine and adding a new strain to the department’s already-depleted ranks.

On January 12, SPD reported that 124 officers were isolating after testing positive for the virus: more than at any other point during the COVID-19 pandemic, easily surpassing the previous record of 80 officers in quarantine in November 2020. As of last Friday, the number of officers in quarantine had fallen to 85. Nearly 200 SPD employees have tested positive for the virus since the beginning of January, doubling the department’s total number of infections since the start of the pandemic.

The surge of COVID-19 infections, driven by the highly infectious omicron variant, intensifies a staffing shortage at SPD that has whittled away the department’s detective units and left some precincts with only a handful of officers to patrol large areas of the city. With fewer than 1,000 available officers—the lowest number in decades—SPD now routinely relies on non-patrol officers to volunteer for patrol shifts to meet minimum staffing requirements.

Another 170 officers are currently on leave, including more than two dozen unvaccinated officers who are burning through their remaining paid leave before they leave the department. The Seattle Police Officers’ Guild (SPOG), which represents the department’s rank-and-file officers and sergeants, has not reached an agreement with the city about the vaccine mandate for city employees, which went into effect on October 18. SPOG is the only city union that has not reached an agreement with the city about the mandate, and its negotiations appear to have stalled.

In contrast, the King County Sheriff’s Office is still working with some unvaccinated officers to find accommodations that will allow them to return to work. Sergeant Tim Meyer, a sheriff’s office spokesman, told PubliCola that his office hasn’t seen enough new COVID-19 cases to pose a challenge for their patrol shifts.

2. The omicron variant is also impacting other city departments where staff interact directly with the public, including the Seattle Public Library, which last week reduced opening hours at branches across the system. For now, many branches will be open only sporadically, starting as late as noon on weekdays, and some will be open just a few partial days each week.

According to SPL spokeswoman Elisa Murray, 63 library staffers, or about 10 percent of the library’s staff, were on a leave of absence (through programs such as the Family and Medical Leave Act) for at least one day during the last two weeks of 2021; in addition, 32 employees were out due to COVID infection or exposure.

Compounding the problem, the library was already short-staffed before omicron hit; compared to 2018, the system had about 8.5 percent fewer staffers overall last year. According to Murray, “With a hiring push in the fall of 2021, we were able to restore pre-pandemic hours at most libraries by Dec. 6, just before the Omicron surge began impacting our staffing numbers once again.”

The library is trying to keep at least two branches in each of its six geographical regions open six or seven days a week so that no one has to travel too far to reach an open branch. Patrons of smaller branches, like Wallingford, Montlake, New Holly, and Northgate may have to travel to other neighborhoods to access services in person.

There is no standard pattern for closures across the city: Some branches are closed on Tuesday, Friday and Saturday, for example, while others are closed on Saturday and Sunday. Murray suggests checking SPL’s website every morning to see which branches are open; the library requires a specific mix of staffers to open a branch, which means that one person calling in sick can be enough to close down a small branch for the day.

3. Shaun Van Eyk, the longtime labor representative for the city of Seattle’s largest union, PROTEC17, will soon be on the other side of the bargaining table as director of Labor Relations for the city’s human resources department. Van Eyk reportedly beat out Adrienne Thompson, former mayor Jenny Durkan’s chief labor advisor, for the position.

As a representative for PROTEC17, Van Eyk advocated for Human Services Department workers facing an uncertain future as the city’s homelessness division dissolved; argued against proposed free-speech restrictions that would limit what city employees could say online; and tangled with city leaders, including those at the Seattle Police Department, over the enforcement of Seattle’s vaccine mandate. (While police officers are represented by the Seattle Police Officers Guild, PROTEC17 represents civilian SPD employees.) In an email to union members announcing Van Eyk’s new position, PROTEC17 director Karen Estevenin credited Van Eyk with negotiating a COVID-era teleworking agreement and a recent wage increase for union members.

The labor relations division has undergone significant churn since the untimely death of its longtime director, David Bracilano, in 2017.

Paul Kiefer, Erica C. Barnett

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