Tag: city employees

City Employees Seeking Wage Increase Advised to “Avoid Impulse Buys”

Financial tips for city workers included putting money into savings before paying bills and stopping “money leaks” like unnecessary subscriptions.

By Erica C. Barnett

Mayor Bruce Harrell’s human resources department sent out an email sent out an email to city workers this week containing tips and tricks for spending less money. Harrell has proposed giving thousands of city employees a “cost of living adjustment” significantly below the rate of inflation.

The email, titled “Financial Self-Care,” informs employees that “Making small changes to your money mindset and habits can have an immediate impact on your financial picture.” For example, it says, city workers could get rid of subscriptions that can add $12 to $30 to their monthly costs; consolidate their debts; and “pay yourself firstset aside money for emergency funds or long-term savings every paycheck before paying bills and spending.

The council did approve a $20 million increase in the tax to pay for mental health care services at public schools, with Council President Debora Juarez joining Tammy Morales, Teresa Mosqueda, Lisa Herbold, and amendment sponsor Kshama Sawant to vote for the increase

“Pay yourself first” is a concept popularized by the “Rich Dad, Poor Dad” series of self-help books, which argues that people should put money toward investments before paying for rent, food, electric bills, and other immediate needs.

The email also advise workers—who are seeking an annual wage increase that at least keeps up with inflation, instead of a sub-inflationary increase that will amount to a significant annual pay cut—to start thinking about whether they really need the things they’re buying. “Start defining wants and needs – Ask yourself: ‘Is this a need or want?’ with each purchase, to avoid impulse buys,” the email says.

Harrell, who initially proposed a 1 percent wage increase at a time when inflation had recently topped 8 percent, has reportedly more than doubled that offer, but even a 2.5 percent increase represents a significant pay cut in a city where the cost of living is rising much faster than that.

“When we stop seeing financial self-care as a chore and start incorporating it as part of a routine, we become empowered to build a stronger future,” the email concludes. “What steps can you take next?”

For many city workers, the answer is: Continue working for a wage increase that won’t put them even further behind. Earlier this month, city employees held a series of “practice pickets” across the city.

On Tuesday morning, the city council voted 5-4 against two proposals that would increase the JumpStart payroll tax, paid by the city’s largest companies, by a fraction of a percentage point to fund $40 million for future pay increases for city employees.

The council did approve a $20 million increase in the tax to pay for mental health care services at public schools, with Council President Debora Juarez joining Tammy Morales, Teresa Mosqueda, Lisa Herbold, and amendment sponsor Kshama Sawant to vote for the increase.

Dozens of students and former students showed up at a public hearing Monday night to testify in favor of the modest tax hike, noting the recent increase in diagnosed and undiagnosed mental illness and suicide attempts among public school students in Seattle. Before voting against the proposal, Councilmember Sara Nelson said it was important to sit down with “both sides” before passing any tax increase.

Essential Workers Protest Harrell’s “Insulting” 1 Percent Pay Increase Offer

Ed Hill, a 30-year veteran of Seattle City Light, shows his “essential worker” badge

By Erica C. Barnett

City Light electricians, Parks Department construction workers, librarians, and other city employees unfurled a 50-foot-long petition down a flight of steps inside the lobby of City Hall yesterday to demonstrate their opposition to a proposed 1 percent “cost of living adjustment” Mayor Bruce Harrell’s labor negotiators proposed earlier this year. The petition included signatures from nearly 6,000 people in support of the Coalition of City Union’s efforts to improve the unions’ contract.

Members of the 11 unions that make up the Coalition of City Unions—which, collectively, represent about 6,000 city workers—expressed disappointment and outrage about the Harrell Administration’s proposal, which would boost these workers’ wages just 1 percent in 2024, and a maximum of 2.5 percent over the next four years. According to the Professional and Technical Workers Coalition, the largest union in the Coalition, Harrell’s office recently offered additional wage increases for people in a “small handful” of job classifications, along with additional vacation time—contingent on the union accepting the 1 percent COLA.

In contrast salaries for rookie police officers quickly rise to six figures, not counting overtime, over a new recruit’s first four years, and that amount will increase again after the city concludes contract negotiations with the police union, which are ongoing now. The city also offers police hiring bonuses of up to $30,000.

One percent, many workers told me Tuesday, is far less than the rate of inflation, which topped 8 percent in Seattle last year. Ed Hill, an electrical construction and maintenance supervisor who has worked for Seattle City light almost 30 years, said that for him, a 1 percent pay boost “is just like 0 percent. That puts me, actually, going backwards. Because everything else is going up everything except my wages.”

Hill said he had high hopes for the negotiations when Harrell showed up for an initial meeting with union negotiators and told them “this was going to be a collaborative process… a nice, easy process. And the whole thing—well, it just hasn’t turned out to be that.”

Joan Estes, another electrical construction and maintenance supervisor who rose through the ranks at City Light, said she took a supervisory job on the assumption that it would be a better career path than her previous job as a City Light electrician. Instead, she said,  “I’m making less now than the job I came from.” On top of that, Estes said, City Light is seeing an increase in wage compression, as the wages of lower-ranked workers, who are represented by a different union, close in on what higher-ranking employees earn. In its most recent contract, IBEW 77, which represents City Light line workers and electricians, negotiated a cost of living adjustment up to 4 percent along with one-time wage increases of 10 percent.

Hill, Estes, and many other workers at Tuesday’s event wore city ID cards bearing a red “ESSENTIAL WORKER” badge—an early-pandemic designation for city employees who didn’t have the option of working from home. Marvin Christianson, a carpenter for the Parks and Recreation department who worked “straight on through” the pandemic, called the 1 percent offer “insulting.”

“We’ve been told over and over again that we’re the best-funded parts department in the nation, and we’re going, why is our work underpaid—so far underpaid that we have recruitment and retention problems?” Christianson said.

Anne Cisney, a librarian at the Central (downtown) Seattle Public Library, said library workers have become an part of the support system for people experiencing homelessness, mental health issues, and addiction, including people in crisis who lash out at library staff.  “And in that environment, to hear from the city that our wages will not even keep pace with inflation, that’s a very hard thing to hear,” Cisney said. “And it leaves us feeling unsupported, devalued and disrespected by the city that we’re working so hard to support. So that’s why such an overwhelming number of library workers feel strongly about this issue.”

Brianna Thomas, Harrell’s labor liaison, came down from the mayor’s office to receive a printed-out version of the petition, but noted several times, “I’m not the negotiator!” Harrell’s office did not immediately respond to a request for comment about the issues the union members raised on Wednesday afternoon.

Bill Would Expand Access to Fentanyl Testing, PubliCola Updates Seattle Employee Directory

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1. As King County hit a demoralizing new record of 1,019 overdose deaths in 2022—a jump of nearly 30 percent over the previous year—a Republican state senator has introduced a bill that would make it easier to access test strips that can indicate the presence of fentanyl in drugs.

As PubliCola has reported, fentanyl is now the default opioid for drug users in King County, a trend that has driven the huge spike in overdoses. Even people who don’t seek out opioids can be at risk, because drugs like cocaine and methamphetamine can be contaminated with fentanyl. Test strips, which can detect the presence of fentanyl in a small amount of a drug, are an essential part of harm reduction efforts, but state law still classifies them as prohibited “drug paraphernalia,” limiting their availability.

Last year, GOP state senator Jim Honeyford, R-Sunnyside, filed a bill that would have changed that designation, but it died in committee. This session, Sen Ron Muzzall, R-Oak Harbor, reintroduced the legislation.

Muzzall told PubliCola that while substance abuse has always been an area of concern for him, it’s also a personal issue. Muzzall is friends with Skagit County Commissioner Lisa Janicki, whose son Patrick died of a fentanyl overdose in 2017 after becoming addicted to pain pills. Muzzall says he knew Janicki’s son and that his death made a deep impression. 

“When a mistake like that leads to having to bury your child.. . well, that emptiness never goes away,” Muzzall said. “And that was a tragedy that was brought about by a prescription of Oxycontin. The liability lies with the pharmaceutical industry that led up to that. And it’s just invading our communities.”

Janicki has been a vocal advocate for Attorney General Bob Ferguson’s successful lawsuit against opioid manufacturers, which will add $476 million to the state’s harm reduction and treatment efforts over the next 17 years. 

The fentanyl test strip bill is an essential part of those efforts, Muzzall said. “It’s just silly that we don’t make these as easily accessible as possible,” he said. “This bill will take the criminality out of providing them.”

Muzzall, who says fatal overdose is a behavioral and mental health crisis that will likely cost the state a billion dollars to address, is working alongside Democratic Sen. Annette Cleveland of Vancouver on a number of bills to address the issue, and hopes to successfully move the test strip bill through committee this time around.

“If an individual is compassionate, bipartisanship comes easily,” he said.

2. In 2021, then-mayor Jenny Durkan’s information technology department took the public-facing directory of city employees offline, removing a vital resource that allowed members of the public and journalists (as well as city of Seattle employees themselves) to contact people who work at the city. Public employees’ contact information is a matter of public record, and keeping this information secret violates a long tradition of transparency that persists in other government entities across the state, from King County to the entire State of Washington.

Durkan, who falsely claimed the directory would be online again in a matter of months, is no longer in office, but her successor, Bruce Harrell, has made no moves to restore this resource. The former city employee directory website is now a static page with links to a list of the city’s official media relations officers, the websites of various city departments, and the city’s data portal (which does not contain the directory).

Because we believe the city directory is a valuable public resource, PubliCola has taken it upon ourselves to maintain an updated database of city employees and their contact information ourselves. Here’s the latest searchable and downloadable version, with information current as of January 5, 2023. We will continue maintaining and updating this database until and unless the city of Seattle decides to put theirs back online.

—Andrew Engelson, Erica C. Barnett

Draft City Policy Would Restrict Personal Use of Social Media, Bar Public Employees From Discussing Anything “Not Already Considered Public”

A proposed new rule governing City of Seattle employees’ conduct on social media would place new restrictions on what employees are allowed to say online, and would include not just full-time workers but anyone who contracts, works part-time, volunteers, or takes an internship at the city. The social-media restrictions would cover everything from harassment, doxxing, and expressing racist sentiments online (all reasonable restrictions for public servants) to anything that “negatively impacts the City of Seattle’s ability to serve the public,” a phrase that is undefined in the legislation and that does not appear in the Seattle Municipal Code.

The rule, which is modeled on (but is much more extensive than) the Seattle Police Department’s Code of Conduct for social media, would also prohibit city workers, contractors, and volunteers from disclosing or even discussing any city information that is either “confidential” (defined as anything that would not be disclosed through a public records requests, including policy drafts like the one I am describing) or “any information that is not already considered public.” Here’s that paragraph in full:

Unless a City employee is an authorized public information officer, an employee whose primary responsibility at the City is to communicate directly to the public on behalf of their department, employees shall not post or otherwise disseminate any confidential information they have access to or have learned about as a result of their employment with the City of Seattle, or discuss any information that is not already considered public without the prior consent or authorization of City department communications.

This restriction, interpreted liberally, would effectively ban all city employees from talking to the media unless explicitly authorized by a city public information officer to do so. The city’s whistleblower code only prohibits retaliation against employees who speak out about “waste[s] of public funds, unsafe practices and violations of law including violation of the City’s Ethics Code.”

Disclosing “confidential” information is already prohibited, although it happens routinely, especially in administrations that interpret public disclosure laws broadly—for example, by blacking out entire documents or simply refusing to provide them on the grounds that anything that isn’t already official policy or law is part of the city’s “deliberative process.”

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The ban on discussing anything that isn’t “already considered public” would be a broad expansion of this prohibition, effectively barring city employees from bringing forward concerns or information of public interest unless a department spokesperson answering to the mayor signs off on it in advance. Whistleblowers like the Seattle Silence Breakers, who brought forward stories about sexual harassment, assault, and gender discrimination within several city departments, might be less likely to come forward in the future if city policy explicitly bars them from discussing not just confidential information but any information that isn’t approved in advance by an official spokesperson for the city.

Shaun Van Eyk, the union representative for the Professional and Technical Employees Union, Local 17, which represents many city employees, says the proposed rule as written is “pretty far afield from anything we would accept.” He says the city has been quietly working on the rule for more a year, but he just became aware of it in the past two months.

Anthony Derrick, a digital advisor for the mayor’s office, says it’s “very common” for cities to have social media policies, and provided links to the policies for South San Francisco, Los Angeles, and New York City. None of these policies, however, included any details about city employees’ personal use of social media; rather, all three are about how city employees should operate the official social media accounts of city agencies.

Derrick did not respond directly to a question about what would constitute “any information that is not considered public,” and pointed to the whistleblower code and existing language barring the disclosure of confidential information in the city’s municipal code. “It goes without saying that anything we potentially implement in the future would not infringe upon employees’ freedom of speech or civil liberties,” he says.

The city had hoped to wrap up discussions about the policy with “representatives from nearly all departments” by the end of March, according to Derrick, but the COVID-19 outbreak has put those conversations on hold.