Northwest News

State workers rally for pay increases, approval of contracts

Call it a lunch break with a message.

A few thousand state employees took 15- to 30-minute “unity breaks” Wednesday to protest a Senate Republican budget proposal that would reject new labor contracts for state workers.

State employees at about 90 job sites walked out of their offices at noon to rally against the Senate Republican plan, while urging the Legislature to approve their negotiated raises.

A spokesman for the state’s largest public employee union, the Washington Federation of State Employees, said the demonstrations were the union’s largest coordinated job action since members went on strike over pay and benefits 14 years ago.

More than 200 workers gathered in the lobby area of the Department of Labor and Industries headquarters in Tumwater as part of the demonstration, while an estimated 300 people gathered outside the Department of Social and Health Services office in Tacoma.

The employees returned to work shortly afterward, with most of the demonstrations lasting between 15 and 30 minutes, said Tim Welch, spokesman for the Washington Federation of State Employees.

The contracts in question, which Gov. Jay Inslee’s office has already negotiated with 23 state worker unions, would give state workers a 3 percent raise in July and a 1.8 percent raise next year.

House Democrats’ budget proposal would fully fund the state employee contracts. But Republicans who control the state Senate have proposed rejecting the agreements, and offering full-time state employees flat $1,000 raises for each of the next two years instead.

“Senators who are getting an 11 percent pay raise shouldn’t be playing games with a 4.8 percent raise for a custodial worker, or food service worker, or a caregiver for the mentally disabled,” said Welch, referencing salary increases that a citizen commission recently approved for lawmakers.

The Republican alternative to the contracts would save the state about $66 million in compensation costs over two years. But if the Legislature were to reject the contracts, it would send Inslee’s negotiating team and the unions back to the bargaining table – and there’s no guarantee that the parties would agree to the Republicans’ proposed $1,000-per-year raises.

State employees haven’t received cost-of-living increases since 2008, though many employees have received longevity-based raises or other types of pay increases during that time.

At the Tumwater rally, employees at the Labor and Industries building held signs that read, “Fund public services & public employee contracts,” as well as handwritten messages such as, “I have a family.”

“We took pay cuts, we took furloughs,” said Thornton Alberg, an L&I employee who serves as the vice president of the Washington Federation of State Employees. “It’s been hard ... we’re just falling further and further behind.”

In April, state lawmakers adjourned their 105-day session two days early after failing to come to an agreement on a new two-year state operating budget. They are now in the middle of a 30-day special session to try to reach a budget deal.