Category: Health

Labor Fizz: Homelessness Agency Workers Unionize, State Vaccine Requirements Go Above and Beyond, City Accuses Parking Officers of Bad-Faith Bargaining

1. Employees of the King County Homelessness Authority have joined the Professional and Technical Employees Local 17 (PROTEC17)—the first step toward negotiating a contract that will establish mandatory standards for wages, hours, and working conditions at the agency, which has about 75 employees. The KCRHA, which oversees contracts with nonprofit homeless service providers around the region, has been operating without a union since last year.

KCRHA evaluation and analytics coordinator Claire Guilmette, who led the push to unionize, said she’s optimistic that the union will be able to reach an agreement quickly and collaboratively with KCRHA director Marc Dones, who will be on the other side of the bargaining table. Both non-managerial employees and some supervisors will have union representation; the state Public Employee Relations Commission is currently considering the agency’s argument that two employees, intergovernmental affairs manager Nigel Herbig and Dones’ executive assistant, Katherine Wells, should be excluded from the bargaining unit.

In a statement, Dones, who has expressed support for unionization in the past, said, “Our people are our greatest strength and we will continue to support our employees with what they need to be successful.” KCRHA spokeswoman Anne Martens said the agency could not comment on current organizing efforts. In response to PubliCola’s question about whether KCRHA has a human resources department, Martens said, “We do indeed,” but did not provide a list of employees in this department. The agency’s staff list is no longer available on its website.

PROTEC17 organizer Jessica Olivas said KCRHA’s employees are “extremely mission-driven,” sometimes to the detriment of advocating for themselves. “I’m actually happy that they took a step back and said, We deserve a voice on the job to help retain and recruit staff, and that’s what’s best in helping to advance their mission,” Olivas said.

As we reported last month, a number of high-level staff have left the agency in recent months, including peer navigator program director Dawn Shephard, senior advisor Lisa Gustaveson, special assistant Naomi See, and chief community impact officer Denille Bezemer.

2. Earlier this month, Governor Jay Inslee announced a new COVID-19 vaccination policy that will require all state employees to be not just vaxxed and boosted but up to date with current recommendations from the Centers for Disease Control, now and in the future, beginning next July. The new mandate goes beyond what the city of Seattle and King County require; for city and county employees, “fully vaccinated” means having received an initial one- or two-shot course of the Pfizer, Moderna, or Johnson and Johnson vaccine.

A spokesman for the state Office of Financial Management, which will be responsible for drafting a formal policy and negotiating with the unions that represent state employees about that policy, said that after July 1, 2023, “employees would need to be up-to-date on any recommended COVID-19 shots/boosters,” subject to bargaining with the unions that represent state workers. PubliCola has reached out to the Washington Federation of State Employees for comment on the new requirements and will update this post if we hear back. 

CDC recommendations change periodically and are different for people of different ages. Currently, for example, the CDC recommends that everyone 50 or older get two booster shots. In a proclamation last year, Inslee defined “fully vaccinated” the same way the oity and county do: One full course of a single vaccine, with no booster requirements.

The complaint alleges that the Seattle Parking Enforcement Officers’ Guild bargained in bad faith with the city by proposing a one-year extension to its existing contract that the union knew its members would reject

3. Last month, we reported that the city’s parking enforcement officers filed an Unfair Labor Practice complaint against the city for taking away their access to a system that provides instant information about vehicle owners, such as whether they have a warrant and for what offense, when the officers moved out of the police department and into the Department of Transportation. Three months later, the Seattle Parking Enforcement Officers Guild (SPEOG) filed a second complaint related to union participation on a special safety committee.

As that complaint moved forward, the city filed its own Unfair Labor Practice complaint against the parking enforcement officers’ union—an unusual step, since most labor complaints are made by employees against their employer, not the other way around. Continue reading “Labor Fizz: Homelessness Agency Workers Unionize, State Vaccine Requirements Go Above and Beyond, City Accuses Parking Officers of Bad-Faith Bargaining”

Controversial Officer Gets Short Suspension for Shattering Driver’s Window; Woodland Park Sweep Houses Four People; County Councilmember Dunn Votes “No” on Choice

1. Last month, Seattle’s Office of Police Accountability, which investigates allegations of officer misconduct, dismissed most of a complaint filed by a police lieutenant against SPD officer Andrei Constantin, who deliberately shattered the window of a car parked at a gas station while the driver and a passenger were inside. Of five allegations, including charges of retaliation and dishonesty, the OPA upheld only two—failing to document the smashed window and behaving unprofessionally. As a penalty, Police Chief Adrian Diaz issued an eight-day suspension.

If Constantin’s name sounds familiar, that’s because this isn’t the first time his actions have landed him in the press. In 2020, Constantin was outed as the person allegedly responsible for an anonymous Twitter account that, among other inflammatory statements, mocked victims of police violence, including George Floyd, promoted violence against protesters, and called for donations to a defense fund for a driver who killed a demonstrator on I-5 in the summer of 2020.

Since that controversy, police accountability watchdogs have unearthed at least four other OPA complaints against Constantin, many of them containing multiple misconduct allegations, in the last five years. Many of those resulted in referrals for training rather than suspensions or more serious punishment. The complaints identified on the SPD.watch website, a joint project of DivestSPD and Tech Bloc Seattle, included: Pulling over a driver without justification, pointing a gun at him, and handcuffing him; threatening to use his Taser on a man who was not being threatening; stopping a homeless Black bike rider and detaining him for nearly an hour because he wasn’t wearing a helmet; and a use-of-force allegation that the OPA hasn’t yet resolved.

According to the OPA report on this latest incident, Constantin saw a car parked at a gas station, ran driver’s plates and determined that the title to his car hadn’t been transferred when it was sold. When Constantin approached the car, the driver, who was Latino, got back in the car and rolled up the window, according to the report. At that point, Constantin “used a hard object to strike and shatter the driver’s side window” while the driver and a passenger were inside. In his own report on the incident, Constantin withheld the fact that he had smashed the person’s window.

A disciplinary action report recommending the suspension noted that Constantin had been disciplined for misconduct twice before. “[Y]ou did not have probable cause to arrest or any basis to engage in a vehicle pursuit. Despite this, you destroyed a community member’s property,” the report says. “That is an act akin to vandalism done under the purported color of law.”

2. The site of a longstanding encampment in Lower Woodland Park was quiet and mostly empty on Tuesday afternoon, save for a group of volunteers trying to start a vehicle and push it out of the park. Piles of pallets, tarps, and trash were the only evidence that dozens of people had been living on site for months, many of them as recently as a few hours earlier.

More than 95 percent of the Woodland Park encampment residents who accepted referrals from the HOPE Team were offered emergency shelter, not housing.

By 2pm, workers with the city’s Parks Department had surrounded most of the former encampment site with caution tape and posted large “PARK TEMPORARILY CLOSED” signs at the entrances to the area; parks employees stationed at the east end of West Green Lake Way asked drivers entering the area where they were going.

The city has spent five months doing outreach at the park and offering shelter beds to people on a “by-name list” of those who were living on site back in February. Since then, dozens more have arrived who were not on that original list, including at least some who moved to the park because they heard it was scheduled for a sweep, effectively unlocking city services that are not available at other encampments. The HOPE Team, run by the city’s Human Services Department, has exclusive access to about a third of the city’s shelter beds, which it offers to people living in encampments in the runup to sweeps.

According to Mayor Bruce Harrell’s office, the city’s HOPE Team made 83 offers of “shelter or housing” to people living in the park, including most of the people on the original 61-person list. Seventy-nine of those offers were for shelter; just four people moved into permanent supportive housing. Other than the four housing referrals, the city does not have data on how people actually enrolled in shelter.

The goal since the onset of this coordinated engagement was to ensure that everyone residing onsite received an offer of shelter and that the vast majority were  connected to the best-suited shelter and support services,” Harrell spokesman Jamie Housen said. As of Tuesday morning, the city had 42 shelter beds available for those who remained on site; 27 accepted referrals, including 20 referrals into tiny house villages run by the Low-Income Housing Institute. 

As always, people who receive “referrals” do not necessarily show up and stay at a shelter, and people who enroll in a shelter within 48 hours—”enrollments,” in the city’s nomenclature—do not necessarily stay there. (More on the HOPE Team’s low shelter enrollment rate here). And media reports, like this one, that claim dozens of people moved into “housing” are, at best, misleading, since more than 95 percent of the Woodland Park encampment residents who accepted referrals from the HOPE Team were offered emergency shelter, not housing.

One reason the city was able to offer so many shelter beds—particularly tiny house village spots, which are in high demand—is that they reserved spots specifically for this encampment removal; the referral rate is not representative of the number of beds available to the HOPE Team on a typical night, nor is it close to the number accessible to nonprofit outreach groups like REACH, which access shelter beds through a separate pool.

According to HSD spokesman Kevin Mundt, the Low-Income Housing Institute made about 30 of its shelter beds available to people living in Woodland Park, including 16 spots at tiny house villages.

The park will be closed until next Monday, according to Housen, so that Parks employees can “focus on returning the park to its intended use (access to recreation, hosting events and sports, and sustaining critical natural area).”

3. King County Councilmember Reagan Dunn, currently running as a Republican against Democratic US Rep. Kim Schrier in Washington’s 8th Congressional District, cast the lone “no” vote against a resolution supporting women’s right to choose and affirming the validity of the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision, which the US Supreme Court is poised to overturn. Even the council’s other Republican, Pete Von Reichbauer, voted to support the measure after several council members, including women and gay men, spoke passionately about their support for the right to abortion as well as other rights that could be threatened if Roe goes away, such as the right to same-sex marriage.

Dunn did not explain why he voted against the measure, which “declares [the council’s] support of a woman’s right to reproductive freedom and of Roe v. Wade as settled law of the land” and asks the health department to “actively enforce” existing law regulating so-called “crisis pregnancy centers”—sites run by religious groups that attempt to talk pregnant women into going through with their pregnancies.

Dunn, a moderate by contemporary Republican standards, is up against several more conservative primary-election challengers peddling conspiracy theories and touting their support for Trump. Still, his vote against a nonbinding pro-choice resolution places him out of the mainstream of Washington politics, and could alienate many voters in his district; Schrier, a Democrat, ran against anti-choice Republican Dino Rossi and won on an explicitly pro-choice platform.

Police Accountability Office Dismissed Widespread Mask Violations as “Cultural Issue”

Photo by Adam Cohn on Flickr; Creative Commons license

By Erica C. Barnett

A new report from the Seattle Office of the Inspector General (OIG) found that the Office of Police Accountability, which investigates allegations of officer misconduct, routinely dismissed complaints from the public about officers refusing to wear masks as required, viewing noncompliance as a “cultural problem” rather than individual insubordination. A spokeswoman for the OPA said the office “does not investigate systemic issues, which are the sole purview of the OIG.”

The OPA did not sustain (uphold) any of the 98 complaints the OIG reviewed about officers ignoring the mask mandate. These complaints included a highly publicized incident in which an officer refused to wear a mask inside a hospital; that officer was disciplined for violating SPD’s professionalism policies, but the OPA said mask noncompliance was a “systemic issue that needs to be remedied” by the department, not a matter for individual discipline.

The report also found that SPD supervisors rarely disciplined officers even for third, fourth, and fifth violations of the mask mandate, using “supervisor actions” (training or coaching by a supervisor, usually reserved for minor policy violations) in lieu of formal discipline.

“Director Myerberg explained that he perceived the mask non-compliance as indicative of a serious culture issue within SPD and stated that it was not sustainable for OPA to be the ‘thought police’ of the Department.”—Inspector General report on widespread mask violations at SPD

The OPA spokeswoman declined to comment on the OIG’s conclusions.

“I think what you see with the frustration expressed by OPA and the tone of this report is an acknowledgement that such widespread non-compliance with policy, and even direct orders, can’t be adequately addressed by piecemeal, individual discipline or external policy recommendations,” Inspector General Lisa Judge told PubliCola. “Issues like this that have a strong underlying cultural or philosophical root require action on the part of leadership to shift that culture to change behavior.”

According to the report, both the OPA and SPD treated officers’ refusal to comply with mask mandates as a “minor nondisciplinary issue,” even after the state Department of Labor and Industries penalized the department on two separate occasions for “serious” violations of state law requiring work sites to be “free from recognized hazards that are causing, or are likely to cause, serious injury or death.”

For the first violation, from February 2021, L&I fined SPD $5,400 and outlined a course of disciplinary action, including progressive discipline (discipline that becomes more severe with additional violations) for officers cited for failing to follow mask rules more than twice. L&I ultimately closed that complaint because officers were using various tactics to slow down disciplinary proceedings against them, making it harder for the OPA to investigate and punish officers who wouldn’t wear mask.

L&I’s second citation, from July 2021, involved multiple complaints that officers weren’t wearing masks while responding to public demonstrations. Although the agency couldn’t interview any of the officers involved in this second complaint because they were all on furlough or refused to cooperate, L&I issued a $12,000 fine.

According to the report, then-OPA director Andrew Myerberg, now a public-safety advisor to Mayor Bruce Harrell, “noted that it seemed procedurally unjust to sustain an insubordination allegation against an individual officer when others higher in the chain of command might also not be wearing masks.

“Director Myerberg stated that no one in headquarters wore masks and related that someone had sent OPA a photo of multiple lieutenants, captains, and chiefs celebrating an event at headquarters without any masks. Director Myerberg explained that he perceived the mask non-compliance as indicative of a serious culture issue within SPD and stated that it was not sustainable for OPA to be the ‘thought police’ of the Department.” Continue reading “Police Accountability Office Dismissed Widespread Mask Violations as “Cultural Issue””

SPD Jails Shoplifters for Thefts as Small as $6.99; Pedersen Unilaterally Installs Bike Board Member; Helmet Law Overturned

1. Seattle police officers took part in a crackdown on retail theft at Target’s downtown Seattle store last week called “Operation New Day,” booking people suspected of shoplifting into the King County jail despite ongoing pandemic-related restrictions that limit booking to people arrested for violent crimes.

On Friday, plainclothes officers from the Seattle Police Department’s Community Response Group, a team that floats between the city’s four precincts to supplement patrol, were working with Target’s loss prevention team to identify people stealing merchandise, flagging them for uniformed officers waiting on the sidewalk outside.

Over the course of the day, officers arrested at least five people. One woman was booked into jail for stealing $6.99 worth of merchandise, while another man was booked for stealing vitamins, baby formula and other merchandise valued at more than $600, according to police reports. Two of the people arrested had previously spent time in the jail in the past year for misdemeanor assault or weapons offenses, among other charges. All of the people arrested on Friday have since been released from jail, though the woman booked for stealing $6.99 worth of merchandise was later charged with assault for hitting a Target employee—a detail not included in the original arrest report.

Early in the COVID-19 pandemic, King County Executive Dow Constantine limited booking at King County’s jails to people arrested for assaults, DUIs and firearms violations, and other high-priority offenses, with the goal of reducing the county’s jail population to stem the spread of the virus. However, Constantine allowed the jail to make exceptions when agencies that use the jail, including SPD, can argue convincingly that booking people for nonviolent crimes is necessary to protect public safety.

On Thursday, Constantine told PubliCola that the county has received and approved few requests for exceptions.

“Law enforcement agencies have been judicious about making them,” added Noah Haglund, a spokesman for King County’s Department of Adult and Juvenile Detention. In order to receive an exemption, a law enforcement agency needs to submit a request before bringing arrestees to the jail. According to Haglund, the City of Seattle requested an exemption before booking the people arrested for shoplifting on Friday. Sergeant Randall Huserik, a spokesman for SPD, the bookings are intended to “deter the suspects” from committing crimes in the future.

2. Next week, the city council will vote to appoint Dr. Douglas Migden, a long-distance recreational cyclist who lives in the Queen Anne neighborhood, to the Seattle Bicycle Advisory Board. Council transportation committee chair Alex Pedersen chose Migden for the board unilaterally after a five-month-long recruitment and nomination process in which the bike board interviewed dozens of candidates and ultimately selected land-use planner Anthony Avery for the seat.

Ryan Packer covered Pedersen’s decision to discard the bike board’s choice for the Seattle Bike Blog last week.

According to SBAB co-chair Sarah Udelhofen, the bike board has three top priorities when choosing new board members. They look for candidates with unique biking experiences (such as family cyclists and newer riders); those who offer “perspective from a community that has been underrepresented in or marginalized by the mainstream bike movement”; and people who are familiar with neighborhoods that are underrepresented on the board or that lack safe bike infrastructure. Historically, the mainstream bike movement has been dominated by white, male recreational cyclists who ride in the road.

“These commissions and boards have processes for how they make appointments. They review applications, do interviews, and so it can be frustrating when the folks that they have chosen through community process are not selected. And I understand why folks might feel demoralized when that happens.”—City Councilmember Tammy Morales

Avery did not respond to an email seeking comment on Pedersen’s decision. His LinkedIn page describes him as a member of Cascade Bicycle Club and an advocate against car-oriented streets—positions that put him at odds with some of Pedersen’s stated views on transportation planning. “I plan for people, not cars,” Avery wrote. “If you want to call it a war on cars, that’s fine. Each year over 35,000 Americans are killed by people driving motor vehicles. … In 2021, despite a commitment to Vision Zero, traffic-related deaths in the City of Seattle are on the rise.”

Pedersen advocated against a long-planned protected bike lane along 35th Avenue NE in his district, which former mayor Jenny Durkan killed after business owners complained about the loss of on-street parking spaces. He also opposed bike lanes on Eastlake, arguing that cyclists could simply veer back and forth between parallel “greenways” located on nearby streets. And before he was elected in 2019, Pedersen argued against the Move Seattle levy, among other reasons, because it funded safe bike lanes, which Pedersen argued are useless for “senior citizens, the disabled, single parents, parents of young children without transportation to school, and those juggling multiple jobs .”

After the city council discussed Migden’s appointment earlier this week, Councilmember Tammy Morales noted pointedly, “These commissions and boards have processes for how they make appointments. They review applications, do interviews, and so it can be frustrating when the folks that they have chosen through community process are not selected. And I understand why folks might feel demoralized when that happens.”

Udelhofen said the bike board plans “to be even more proactive with our timeline” for the next open seat, and will “start the process even earlier to ensure there is ample time for our recommended candidates to be reviewed, discussed, and approved in time for the 9/1/22 term start date.” She said that although the bike board is “disappointed with the lack of transparency around the selection and approval process, we have no qualms about Dr. Midgen’s qualifications for serving on SBAB” and look forward to his participation on the board.

3. The King County Board of Health voted on Thursday to repeal the county’s bicycle helmet requirement, responding to a push from bicycle advocates and civil liberties groups who pointed to data showing that police enforcing the law disproportionately targeted people of color and homeless people.

Continue reading “SPD Jails Shoplifters for Thefts as Small as $6.99; Pedersen Unilaterally Installs Bike Board Member; Helmet Law Overturned”

COVID Outbreak at Monroe Prison Creates Confusion About Quarantine

By Paul Kiefer

A prison-wide outbreak of COVID-19 at the Monroe Correctional Complex in Snohomish County last month sickened hundreds of people and forced prison administrators to convert some wings of the prison into quarantine wards. Two weeks later, some of those who were placed in quarantine say that prison administrators have left them in the dark during the ordeal, leaving some unsure of whether they were, in fact, COVID-positive when they were placed in cells with sick inmates.

More than half, or 855, of the 1,600 people incarcerated at Monroe have tested positive for COVID-19 in the past 30 days, which represents roughly half of the prison’s total cases since the start of the pandemic. During smaller outbreaks, prison administrators transformed some of the prison’s solitary confinement cells into medical isolation pods for those with the most serious infections. The scale of January’s outbreak, however, overwhelmed the prison’s earlier quarantine strategies and prompted a complicated re-shuffling of prisoners.

In the prison’s largest housing complex, administrators chose to place COVID-positive prisoners in the C unit, which typically holds people convicted of sex offenses. People who were moved to the C unit, however, say that not everyone placed in quarantine is certain they were COVID-positive when they arrived.

Jeremiah Winchester, who tested positive for the virus, said that some C unit residents who tested negative for COVID-19 were left in their cells alongside new COVID-positive arrivals from elsewhere in the prison. “As far as they know, they weren’t sick when we got here,” he said, “but after all this time with us, they’ve probably caught the virus.” Another man incarcerated at Monroe, Darwin Williams, claimed that guards moved him to the C unit after his COVID rapid test came back with inconclusive results. “I still don’t know for sure if I was infected or not when I got here, and they haven’t tested me again,” he said.

A spokesperson for the Washington Department of Corrections (DOC) didn’t outright deny the inmates’ claims, telling PubliCola that the C unit “currently is housing only COVID-19 positive individuals,” and that prisoners who tested negative “have been removed” from the unit; the spokesperson did not specify when COVID-negative prisoners were removed from the unit. Continue reading “COVID Outbreak at Monroe Prison Creates Confusion About Quarantine”

Bill Would Force State Agency to Improve Access to Services or Stop Cutting Off Benefits

DSHS Rainier Community Service Office
Rainier DSHS Community Service Office in Seattle. Image via Google Maps.

By Erica C. Barnett

When the pandemic shut down in-person offices across the state in March 2020, the state Department of Social and Health Services (DSHS) was no exception; the department, which administers state benefits ranging from direct cash assistance to food stamps, shuttered all 181 of its local offices and began offering services only online or over the phone.

In the two years since, many state, regional, and local government offices that serve the public have reopened, including public libraries, city customer service centers, and many local courts. But DSHS still requires anyone seeking assistance to use their online portal or call a telephone hotline, where waits can be as long as several hours. People who are unsheltered, those without reliable cell phone service, and those who don’t speak English (who are instructed to “leave a voicemail with your phone number and the language you speak”) are especially ill-served by this patchwork system.

“Essentially, if you have internet service, and unlimited minutes, and time to wait on hold for two or three hours or longer, you can access services, but if you don’t… you cannot,” said Alison Eisinger, director of the Seattle/King County Coalition on Homelessness, which is backing a bill that would require DSHS to either provide better customer service or stop penalizing people who can’t access their system.

For social service providers seeking services on behalf of homeless clients, Eisinger said, “it does no good to stay on hold for three hours, only to be told, ‘We’ll give you a call back next week,’ because when the call comes, the outreach worker is one place and the person they’re trying to help is who knows where.”

“It’s pretty straightforward: They literally can’t sit on a phone for three or four hours. They don’t have a place that’s warm and safe and dry to do that, they don’t have a phone charger that allows them to do that, they don’t have a space that works—and even if it did work, so many are in states of mental health crisis or have other barriers that a phone interview is just not gonna do it.”—HB 2075 sponsor Rep. Strom Peterson

State Rep. Strom Peterson (D-21, Edmonds), who is sponsoring the legislation, said that while he was initially reluctant to support a bill penalizing a short-staffed agency for poor customer service, “the issue came in focus more and more” as he heard from homeless service providers and other advocates for people who rely on basic services and can’t easily access them online or over the phone.

Nightmare stories abound. “One of the advocates told me about a Nigerian immigrant who was almost entirely deaf… so between his accent and his inability to hear somebody on the phone, it was clear that there was no way he could get the services that he so desperately needed” using DSHS’ current system, Peterson said. Other advocates highlighted additional barriers for people suffering from PTSD or traumatic brain injuries, who can have difficulty processing complex information over the phone.

“It’s pretty straightforward: They literally can’t sit on a phone for three or four hours. They don’t have a place that’s warm and safe and dry to do that, they don’t have a phone charger that allows them to do that, they don’t have a space that works—and even if it did work, so many are in states of mental health crisis or have other barriers that a phone interview is just not gonna do it,” Peterson said.

If DSHS is unable to meet any of the new standards—a distinct possibility, since the bill doesn’t include any additional funding—the legislation would bar the agency from reducing or eliminating any client’s benefits.

The bill would impose several new mandates. First, it would require DSHS to “ensure that clients may apply for and receive services in a manner that is suited to the clients’ needs, [including] needs related to technology, language, and ability.” Second, it would require DSHS to reopen all its in-person service centers for all services, not just the current limited menu. (Somewhat perversely, people can show up at service centers in person to call DSHS on a designated land line or access online services on a DSHS computer.) Third, it would require the department to reduce call times to no more than 30 minutes.

Finally, if DSHS is unable to meet any of the new standards—a distinct possibility, since the bill doesn’t include any additional funding (which could make it untenable during the 60-day “short” session)—the legislation would bar the agency from reducing or eliminating any client’s benefits.

A DSHS spokesperson told PubliCola on Monday that the agency was just starting to analyze the bill and would have more detailed comments about its impacts later this week.

State Rep. Nicole Macri (D-43, Seattle), who is co-sponsoring Peterson’s bill, acknowledged that DSHS, like many government and nonprofit agencies that serve vulnerable clients, has been understaffed since the beginning of the pandemic, a situation that was exacerbated by a yearlong hiring freeze between May 2020 and April 2021. Continue reading “Bill Would Force State Agency to Improve Access to Services or Stop Cutting Off Benefits”

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

County’s COVID Response System Was Ill-Prepared for Major Homeless Shelter Outbreak

Image via City of Seattle.

By Erica C. Barnett

On the morning of January 3, hours before an emergency winter weather shelter at Seattle City Hall was scheduled to close, King County Regional Homelessness Authority director Marc Dones and interim Seattle Human Services Department director Tanya Kim showed up to City Hall with an urgent mission: To move as many of the shelter’s COVID-positive guests into private spaces where they could isolate until they were no longer sick.

The task was daunting. King County’s Department of Community and Health Services operates just 179 isolation and quarantine beds, spread between two hotels in Auburn and Kent, and those are reserved for people with the highest risk of complications from COVID.

“I was concerned about community spread,” Dones recalled. “If these are folks who are experiencing unsheltered homelessness, and they come in for the weather, [we don’t want then to] go back to an encampment or meet up with a friend” after being exposed to COVID.

Over the course of a long morning and afternoon, many of the infected shelter guests did make it to hotels, including 16 rooms leased by the Low Income Housing Institute, where LIHI director Sharon Lee said they were able to stay and recuperate for at least 10 days. A smaller number moved to rooms at one of the county’s official isolation and quarantine sites, which admitted a total of 74 people (from anywhere in the county, not just shelters) between Christmas and New Year’s Day. And an unknown number of infected people went back out on the street.

“The optimal strategy is [for shelter guests] to isolate and quarantine in a safe and separate facility from others, but that’s just not possible right now.”—King County Public Health Officer Dr. Jeff Duchin

Moving as many people as possible into hotels was “a hail Mary at,like, 7am,” Dones said—one that neither the city nor the county planned for in advance. “Access Transit picked up some folks over the course of the day. The HOPE Team staff were were able, once they got vans, to get people to where they needed to be. And Tanya and I were the on-site staff, keeping folks fed, getting them badged in [to City Hall] to go to the bathroom, all the things.”

By all accounts, the joint effort by HSD, shelter providers, King County, and the regional authority prevented many of those infected at City Hall from going directly back onto the street—a positive outcome for both individual and public health. But the fact that this outcome required a heroic, last-minute effort illustrates the fragility of King County’s system for responding to COVID outbreaks among the region’s homeless population.

Seattle hadn’t planned to open an emergency shelter at City Hall; in all its pre-winter weather planning, the city assumed it would need just two shelters—one run by Compass Housing in Pioneer Square, the other run by the Salvation Army at Seattle Center—to handle the demand. This assumption was based on experience; historically, people living unsheltered have preferred to wait out subfreezing temperatures in their tents rather than risk losing all their possessions to sleep on a cot in a crowded shelter that they are forced to leave at 7am. Nonetheless, after days of temperatures in the teens and 20s, the two shelters were maxed out, and the city contracted with the Urban League to open a third location.

CDC guidelines for congregate (mass) homeless shelters call for maintaining at least six feet between shelter guests at all times, including while guests are asleep, although King County Public Health guidelines acknowledge this may not be possible during emergencies. At peak, between 60 and 70 people were sleeping on cots in the lobby of City Hall. During the day, shelter guests moved to the Bertha Knight Landes Room, an enclosed meeting room with an official pre-pandemic capacity of 200.

It’s unclear exactly how many people were infected during the outbreak, but reports from people who were physically present or who tried to help infected people isolate after the shelter closed on January 3 suggest the number was at least in the dozens, including five of the six Urban League staffers who worked at the site. (The Urban League did not respond to a request for comment.) King County Public Health confirmed the five staff infections but would only confirm one case among shelter guests. This may be because people who stay in homeless shelters, unlike staffers, are not routinely tested for COVID exposure, so their infections do not always show up on official tallies.

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Current King County COVID guidelines call for anyone staying in a shelter who develops COVID symptoms to “shelter in place” by moving to another area of the shelter or, if possible, into a designated room for COVID-positive shelter guests. The county recently reduced the isolation period for COVID-infected shelter guests and staff from 10 days to five, and eliminated the quarantine period completely for fully vaccinated people. These new guidelines are in keeping with a recent (and controversial) CDC update, but are out of sync with King County Public Health’s official guidelines for people in congregate settings, including homeless shelters, which call for 10 days of isolation for people with COVID and two weeks of quarantine for those exposed to a COVID-positive person.

The highly transmissible omicron COVID variant has dramatically increased the demand for the county’s limited supply of official isolation and quarantine beds, which include on-site, 24-hour medical staff, behavioral health care providers, and other services.

“This omicron surge is overwhelming the number of  available spots we have in [isolation and quarantine] facilities,” King County’s public health officer, Dr. Jeff Duchin, said. “We’re working to actively acquire more spaces in those facilities, but I don’t believe we’re going to ever be able to keep up with the number of cases that occur. … The optimal strategy is isolate and quarantine in a safe and separate facility from others, but that’s just not possible right now.” Continue reading “County’s COVID Response System Was Ill-Prepared for Major Homeless Shelter Outbreak”

Public Defenders Union Joins Jail Guards’ Call to Address COVID Crisis

The King County jail in downtown Seattle (Paul Kiefer/PubliCola)

By Paul Kiefer

An overwhelming surge of COVID-19 infections among staff and inmates at King County jails has spurred a rare alliance between the unions representing the county’s correctional officers and public defenders, which sent a joint letter to elected officials in Seattle and King County on Friday asking for an immediate intervention to reduce the jail’s population and stem the spread of the virus.

“COVID-19 should not be a death sentence for anyone held in a jail or anyone working in a jail,” the unions wrote. “The stark reality is that if no changes are made, people will continue to get sick and continue to suffer.”

The two labor organizations typically represent opposite perspectives in the criminal legal system, a tension they acknowledged in their letter as a sign of the dire need for emergency actions. To reduce the jails’ populations, the unions pushed the county to immediately stop booking people into jail for non-violent offenses, to stop issuing warrants for misdemeanor and non-violent offenses, and to “make plans for the immediate release of all misdemeanor and non-violent offenders.” The unions also pressed county officials to prioritize improving staffing and workplace safety at the jail.

The jails face a severe staffing shortage, with 50 corrections officers out sick and another 100 vacant officer positions that the county has struggled to fill. “Fear, tension, and confusion are sweeping our jails nearly as quickly as COVID,” the unions wrote.

In response, the King County Prosecutor’s Office has expressed its openness to moving more inmates to electronic home monitoring to reduce crowding, though many of the people held in jail under the prosecutor’s purview are charged with violent offenses. Meanwhile, new Seattle City Attorney Ann Davison has expressed her intentions to more aggressively pursue misdemeanor prosecutions of “quality of life” crimes like shoplifting and carrying a concealed firearm without a permit—a plan that could be at cross purposes with the unions’ push to reduce the jail population.

As of Friday afternoon, 197 of the 1,388 people held in King County jails had tested positive for COVID-19, and a total of 288 people were in quarantine. That total has risen astronomically since the start of the new year: the number of infections in King County jails was in the single digits for months until the last week of December. The jails also face a severe staffing shortage, with 50 corrections officers out sick and another 100 vacant officer positions that the county has struggled to fill. “Fear, tension, and confusion are sweeping our jails nearly as quickly as COVID,” the unions wrote.

According to King County Adult and Juvenile Detention (DAJD) spokesman Noah Haglund, the scale of the outbreak overwhelmed the space and staffing limitations of the Maleng Regional Justice Center in Kent, where the county has housed COVID-positive inmates for most of the pandemic. DAJD is now also housing COVID-positive inmates at the King County Correctional Facility in downtown Seattle, and it has limited out-of-cell time for anyone in quarantine to 30 minutes or less per day. People in quarantine at the downtown Seattle jail, Haglund added, are likely to have more out-of-cell time because of the layout of the housing units. At both facilities, the DAJD has provided radios and games to people in quarantine. Continue reading “Public Defenders Union Joins Jail Guards’ Call to Address COVID Crisis”

Hospital Overcrowding Prompts Push For Guardianship and Informed Consent Reforms

King County COVID data as of January 14, 2022

By Leo Brine

Seattle Rep. Nicole Macri (D-43) is working on a bill to reform Washington’s informed consent and guardianship laws, which have prevented hospitals from discharging some patients who need long-term care at a time when hospitals need as many beds as possible to handle the latest spike in COVID cases.

Washington’s guardianship and informed consent laws have prevented hospitals and family members from transferring some patients who cannot make decisions for themselves into long-term care facilities even when a family member has given consent. Macri has a bill cued up which will address the problem, she said.

While the state’s informed consent laws empower family members to make many decisions for incapacitated people, they don’t allow incapacitated patients to leave hospitals for long-term care without the consent of a court-appointed guardian. The reason? Money: Guardians are responsible for paying for long-term care.

It can take months for courts to establish someone as a patient’s guardian, so Macri wants to amend the state’s informed consent laws to make it easier for patients to move to long-term care facilities while allowing courts to establish guardianship for the patient’s long-term financial management later.

Right now, hospitals have patients occupying hospital beds that could be used to treat people with acute needs because they don’t have a paper saying who’s going to front the bill.

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We know there are a lot of publications competing for your dollars and attention, but PubliCola truly is different: We’re funded entirely by reader contributions—no ads, no paywalls, ever.

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As of January 12, Washington state has 2,062 COVID patients in hospitals with 172 on ventilators, according to state data. In King County, hospitalizations more than doubled between January 2 and January 9, county data shows.

Hospitals in Washington have said they are in “a state of crisis” after operating for months at high capacity and now with omicron sending more people to the hospital than ever before.

The Washington State Medical Association sent Governor Jay Inslee a letter last week saying that hospitals are in “a state of crisis” and asking the governor to change guardianship laws so that family members can agree to transfers. The letter included the draft of a proclamation that, if Inslee signed, would have that efect.

However, Inslee said last week that he does not have the executive authority to make the proclamation because, “you have to comply with federal law to admit someone to a long-term care facility. I cannot waive federal law.”

Instead, the governor—inadvertently highlighting the need for Macri’s fix—announced Thursday that he hopes to increase the number of social service workers who work on patient transfers. He also proposed create a program to expedite the process of establishing guardianships and increase the number of guardians, which could help reduce the backlog of patients stuck in hospitals. “[This] may involve more resources for the superior court,” he said. Additionally, to help long-term care facilities take on more discharged hospital patients, he’d add new health care workers to long term care facilities.

Macri says her bill is still necessary because establishing guardianship “can still take months even with the steps that [Inslee is] putting in place.” Her bill will change informed consent laws to allow family members, those with power of attorney, and other surrogate decision makers to consent to a patient’s transfer to a long-term facility.

Macri plans to meet with the governor’s team about her bill to hammer out how it fits in with Inslee’s plans and to address some concerns the governor’s office has around informed consent. One potential sticking point is that, according to Macri, Inslee’s team is sticking with their position that only guardians should be able to make these transfers happen.

Meanwhile, patients without guardians are not the only ones who are having a hard time getting out of hospitals. Often, there are no shelter beds available for homeless patients. And some patients came to the hospital from long-term care facilities but are unable to go back into their care because of understaffing.