Tag: Office of Labor Relations

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

Fizz: Hotel Shelter Debate Continues, City Labor Negotiator Resigns, Poll Tests Mayoral Messages

1. City council member Andrew Lewis, who chairs the council’s homelessness committee, told PubliCola Monday that he’s working on legislation that would authorize funding for new non-congregate shelters, such as hotels, that could be reimbursed by FEMA—which, as we’ve reported, is now paying for all reimbursable expenses, including most shelter services, at 100 percent.

The legislation, which Lewis said won’t be baked until late this week at the earliest, would respond to some of the objections Mayor Jenny Durkan’s office has raised about seeking FEMA reimbursement, which include “onerous” paperwork requirements, a competitive procurement process, and pre-approval from the federal agency.

In addition to those issues, Durkan’s office has said that FEMA will not pay for shelter services of any kind, a claim that is not borne out through the experience of cities like San Francisco, which has received full reimbursement for about 85 percent of the cost of hotel-based shelters and recently announced it was opening 500 new hotel-based shelter rooms using FEMA money.

“We are in a crisis that is exacerbated because of COVID,” Lewis said. “It is totally legitimate for us to seek FEMA reimbursement.”

“We are in a crisis that is exacerbated because of COVID. It is totally legitimate for us to seek FEMA reimbursement.”—City Councilmember Andrew Lewis

Lewis noted that the issue of FEMA reimbursement has been somewhat conflated with funding for JustCARE, a hotel-based shelter program for high-needs individuals with a high impact on the neighborhoods where they live. Among other issues, the mayor’s office has said that JustCARE wouldn’t qualify for FEMA funding because reimbursement requires a competitive contracting process.

“The goal with this legislation is going to be to take a step back and assume that we’re making something new from whole cloth that is defined around the fact of what we need to do for FEMA reimbursement,” Lewis said. “If hotel rooms are a problem for some actors in city government, there are other types of non-congregate shelter we can seek FEMA reimbursement for.”

Durkan has strongly resisted proposals to shelter unhoused people in hotels since the beginning of the pandemic, long before the current FEMA reimbursement debate. Last year, for example, her office consistently responded to questions about why the city wasn’t opening hotel-based shelters by deflecting, noting that the city did contribute funding to the Downtown Emergency Service Center’s hotel-based shelter in Renton.

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The mayor has been more open to funding tiny house villages—encampments made up of small wooden structures about the size of garden sheds— during the pandemic, and Lewis has separately proposed opening eight new villages around the city. Unsheltered people consistently prefer a tiny house to a conventional shelter bed, but hotels offer a number of stabilizing amenities that tiny houses do not, including television, private kitchenettes, beds, and a private place to bathe and relax. Hotel-based shelters also provide revenue for an industry that has been hard hit by the pandemic.

As for JustCARE: County funding for the program is scheduled to run out on March 15, but the county is reportedly working on another stopgap solution to keep the program running in the absence of any city support. Durkan’s office considers JustCARE, which is run by Seattle-based service providers and focused on encampments in Seattle’s Pioneer Square, “a county program.”

2. Jana Sangy, the city’s director of labor relations, announced last week that she’s leaving her position in early June.

Although Sangy’s announcement didn’t include much information about why she’s leaving, staff from Mayor Jenny Durkan’s office had reportedly intervened at a micro, line-item level in individual city contracts in a way that previous mayors have not—which could certainly make the job of a labor relations director more challenging. Labor Relations, which is part of the city’s Department of Human Resources (SDHR), ultimately answers to the mayor and represents the executive’s perspective in labor negotiations.

Sangy’s resignation comes as the city prepares for contract negotiations with the Seattle Police Officers’ Guild (SPOG), the city’s largest police union and one of the key challenges for the labor relations unit.

“There is not a very deep well of stability to fall back on during this transition to yet another interim director. It begs the question why this mayor has had such difficulty retaining solid talent in such a critical role.”

—Peter Nguyen, who represented Labor Relations in SPOG negotiations in 2018

SPOG’s last city contract expired at the beginning of 2021, but the bargaining process won’t begin until the Labor Relations Policy Committee—a group made up of five council members, SDHR Director Bobby Humes, and City Budget Office Director Ben Noble—finishes deliberating on the city’s negotiating priorities and strategy. complete their deliberations. During preparations for bargaining with police unions, representatives from Community Police Commission, Office of Police Accountability and Office of the Inspector General join the LRPC. Once bargaining begins in earnest, a negotiator from the Labor Relations unit will serve as the city’s labor law expert at the bargaining table.

Sangy started in June 2019, becoming the third person to fill that role since 2017; her immediate predecessor, Laurie Brown, was an interim director appointed by Durkan in December of the previous year. According to an email from Humes to city employees last week, Sangy’s interim replacement will beJ eff Clark, who currently serves as one of the unit’s negotiators. Lisa Low, a spokesperson for the city’s HR department, told PubliCola that department leaders “do not anticipate any impacts to the timeline for SPOG bargaining.”

But Peter Nguyen, who represented the Labor Relations unit during the last round of bargaining with SPOG in 2018, thinks that Sangy’s departure ahead of one of her unit’s most crucial performances is a sign of a struggling unit. “The resignation of the city’s Labor Relations Director is troubling,” said Nguyen. “There is not a very deep well of stability to fall back on during this transition to yet another interim director. It begs the question why this mayor has had such difficulty retaining solid talent in such a critical role.”

Sangy did not immediately respond to a request for comment Monday.

3. Seattle residents received two more polls centering on mayoral candidate (and city council president) Lorena González over the last week, both testing positive and negative messages about González, her current and likely opponents, and groups like “the Chamber of Commerce” and “the Black Lives Matter movement.” One poll was an online survey, the other a live poll, but the similarities between them suggest they are versions of the same poll put out by the same campaign or group.

The specific messages the polls were testing were less interesting than what they suggest, cumulatively, about the upcoming election, which will pit González and Chief Seattle Club director Colleen Echohawk—the two current frontrunners—against a long list of other candidates that could include former city council member Bruce Harrell, current deputy mayor Casey Sixkiller, and former state legislator and 2017 mayoral candidate Jessyn Farrell. Continue reading “Fizz: Hotel Shelter Debate Continues, City Labor Negotiator Resigns, Poll Tests Mayoral Messages”

Officials Announce Changes to Police Union Negotiation Strategy, But Accountability and Bargaining Experts Say More Should Be Done

Mayor Jenny Durkan (center) and City Council member Lisa Herbold (right)

By Paul Kiefer

On Wednesday, Mayor Jenny Durkan and City Council member Lisa Herbold announced a pair of adjustments to the make-up of the bodies responsible for negotiating collective bargaining agreements with Seattle’s police unions. For the first time, all three of the city’s accountability partners—the Office of Police Accountability, the Office of the Inspector General (OIG), and the Community Policing Commission (CPC)—will formally advise the city in preparation for, and during, negotiations with the police unions, and they will be able to attend bargaining sessions when police accountability is on the agenda.

Previously, only the OPA advised the city. This will be the first time the CPC, which represents the interests of the public rather than any branch of city government, will have an official role in police contract negotiations.

Second, a member of the City Council’s central staff will now sit at the bargaining table itself; in the past, the bargaining team was composed entirely of the mayor’s staff and staff from departments indirectly under the mayor’s direction. The move was foreshadowed in a January 2020 council resolution “affirming the city’s good faith intent” to consider addressing community and oversight groups’ concerns about the police union collective bargaining process, but that resolution did not name any specific changes to the city’s bargaining strategy.

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In comparison to the last round of contract negotiations, these changes mark some notable shift in Durkan’s approach to negotiations. During the end of the last bargaining process in 2018, both the council and the accountability partners relied on second-hand information provided by the mayor’s office to monitor negotiations and assess proposed contracts. This year, accountability advocates hope that these shake-ups will ensure that longstanding recommendations for improving accountability within SPD are finally enshrined within the police union contracts.

In the press release that accompanied the announcement, OPA director Andrew Myerberg cast the move as a step toward “ensuring public trust and confidence” in the city’s bargaining process with the police unions; he was echoed by Inspector General Lisa Judge, as well as by CPC co-chairs Rev. Harriet Walden and Prachi Dave, who wrote that the inclusion of the CPC in the negotiating process will be “an opportunity to help ensure the reforms in the landmark 2017 Police Accountability Ordinance are fully implemented.”

“Just because you have a [council] representative at the table doesn’t mean that the bargaining process will proceed in a way that’s transparent to the public.”—Peter Nguyen, former Labor Relations (LR) representative during police contract negotiations

The 2018 Seattle Police Officers Guild (SPOG) contract—and Durkan’s approach to negotiations—drew widespread criticism from accountability experts, including retired judge and former OPA auditor Anne Levinson and the CPC,  who said that the contract undercut major improvements to accountability that were enacted in the historic 2017 accountability ordinance.

A key problem, Levinson told PubliCola, was that — as she understands — the Mayor’s Office’s goal during the negotiations was not to ensure that the reforms they promised to the public were fully realized. “At a minimum [the Mayor’s Office] should have been saying, ‘here is how a proposed provision is different than what the community was promised and what was adopted in the accountability ordinance,’ or, ‘here is how the proposal would lessen, rather than strengthen, accountability and not serve the public as well,” said Levinson. “There was an obvious lack of an independent voice for accountability reform and community perspective.”

Peter Nguyen, who represented the LR at the bargaining table with SPOG in 2018 (and worked as a legislative aide to council member Dan Strauss) but no longer works for the city, shares Levinson’s view. He was one of only five people on the city’s negotiating team that year, sitting beside then-counsel to the mayor Ian Warner, private attorney Otto Klein, and representatives from SPD’s Human Resources unit and SPD’s command staff.

Nguyen’s interview with PubliCola was the first time he’s gone on record to speak about the city’s labor negotiations strategies; it’s rare for labor negotiation professionals to give interviews on the subject. “The major failure of transparency when it comes to police bargaining in its current form in Seattle,” Nguyen told PubliCola before the mayor’s announcement, “is that negotiations can and essentially are driven by a single individual [the mayor] who cannot possibly reflect the collective interest of our entire city when it comes to public safety, and who is not subject to the proper checks and balances which would safeguard the public good.” Continue reading “Officials Announce Changes to Police Union Negotiation Strategy, But Accountability and Bargaining Experts Say More Should Be Done”