State workers rallied Tuesday in Tumwater as part of a summer campaign to persuade the state to provide a labor contract that would boost salaries, make health care more affordable and provide better working conditions for public-sector employees.
Washington Federation of State Employees, the state’s largest union, organized Tuesday’s rally — the first in a series around the state — to raise awareness about setbacks in the public sector workforce over that past decade and the importance of the upcoming labor contract.
About 150 people attended the rally outside the headquarters of the state Labor & Industries Department, which came on the eve of the next round of bargaining on the 2017-2019 contract covering 30,000 state employees. That two-day bargaining session is Wednesday and Thursday in Lacey.
Labor contracts are negotiated biennially, and the conditions in the existing contract have become unsustainable, employees said Tuesday. But because they are in a two-year contract, it could not be changed.
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“We weren’t able to say to our employers, ‘This policy that you created for us is not working,” said Imelda Ang, a diversity administrator for L&I. “Not being able to negotiate hurt the workers a lot.
“Some of the employees that I work with at L&I are working poor,” Ang said. “It’s not even paycheck to paycheck anymore. It’s a catch-up game from two checks behind.”
A recent state survey showed that 99 percent of Washington public employees are paid less than their counterparts in surrounding states, according to a news release from the union.
The pay gap not only hurts workers, it makes it hard for the state to attract and keep its employees, the union contends. Workloads also have increased, they said.
The state budget office reports that some 600 state employees leave state service monthly. And in this century, Washington has 1 million more residents in need of state services, but 3,000 fewer state employees to serve them.
In 2010, Washington state employees voluntarily took a 3 percent pay cut, according to state Sen. Karen Fraser, a candidate for lieutenant governor who attended the rally.
“They haven’t really recovered from that yet,” Fraser said. “So it’s time for a big catch-up.”
As medical benefits cover less and less, the union said some union members either continue paying the overwhelming prescription drug costs or outsource to international vendors.
“Every time my wife and I get prescription meds that both of us take, we do comparisons between the costs of mail ordering it from Canada versus buying it through our insurance,” said Ken Grubb, an IT worker at L&I. “It’s always a balancing act.”
The current labor contract for 2014-16 wraps up this fall, so negotiations will soon begin for the 2017-2019 contract.
“This is a huge, huge, huge process,” Fraser said. “The people who are going to be direct negotiators are in for a lot of work and commitment.”