King County | Reforms in labor policy include changes in wages and benefits

Council adopts recommendations after first holistic review of labor policy since Metro/County merger

The Metropolitan King County Council today reformed nearly a generation of labor policy by adopting a comprehensive labor reform package that may mean greater employee contributions to their health and dental benefits, wages tied to regional economic conditions and layoffs based on merit rather than seniority.

In it unanimous adoption of labor reforms, the Committee of the Whole—acting as the Council’s Labor Policy Committee—accomplished one of the Council’s top priorities for 2010. The reforms will increase transparency in the labor negotiation process while creating a collaborative atmosphere to review and update the single biggest cost driver in the King County general fund budget: labor costs, which represent 60 percent of the 2010 general fund budget.

“This is the first time in a generation that King County has taken a good, hard look at its labor policies,” said Council Vice Chair Jane Hague, Chair of the Committee of the Whole. “The County is going to have to undergo some more belt tightening, but this is a significant first step. I would also like to commend my colleagues on the Council for the work they’ve done. Their cooperation on this potentially contentious matter has been terrific.”

“With so many of our King County residents out of work, and important services like public safety and transit facing drastic cuts, it’s time to reevaluate how we bargain with our employees,” said Councilmember Larry Phillips, Vice Chair of the Committee of the Whole. “It’s critical that employee contracts be fair and financially sustainable so that we can preserve jobs and continue providing critical services to the public.”

The adoption of the new labor policy is the culmination of work that involved the both the Council and County Executive Dow Constantine. Fiscal responsibility and restoring trust in government headed the Council’s adopted “21st Century Governance” motion. Facing a $60 million dollar deficit in the 2011 County Budget, the County Council made a comprehensive review of labor costs a primary focus of its annual work program. The result of the first holistic review of labor policy since the merger of King County and Metro in 1994 was the elimination of 9 of the 27 adopted labor policies that were considered redundant or obsolete.

“Councilmember Hague’s leadership in addressing labor policies is a necessary step to deal with our budget shortfall,” said Council Chair Bob Ferguson. “Today’s bi-partisan effort demonstrates the kind of leadership we must maintain to keep the County on track despite the significant fiscal challenges we face.”

“Labor is the face of King County, and our employees perform many vital and important functions,” said Councilmember Kathy Lambert. “Our dedicated staff includes doctors, nurses, attorneys, clerks, jail guards, judges, sheriff’s deputies, and waste water workers. These people are assets to the citizens of King County, and their compensation needs to be fair. The new parameters approved today will bring transparency to the labor negotiation process and will help keep compensation at a level that allows us to retain our employees and to do so within available tax dollars that citizens can afford.”

The Council held its annual labor summit with representatives of the County’s bargaining units in early May to ensure that the unions were aware of the approach the Council was taking in regards to labor policy and its impact on the 11,000 employees they represent.

“Reforming our labor policies is a major step in facing our budget challenges,” said Budget and Fiscal Management Chair Julia Patterson. “With labor representing a majority of our general fund, it is critical that we work with our employees to reduce costs, even as we develop more efficient business practices.”

“King County labor policy reform is a difficult undertaking but it is absolutely necessary,” said Councilmember Reagan Dunn. “Budget sustainability and efficiency will remain out of reach until labor costs are addressed and brought in line with fiscal reality. This is a meaningful step in the right direction.”

“Our dire economic times have brought greater collaboration between organized labor, the Council and the Executive,” said Councilmember Larry Gossett. “Together, we share a common interest to serve the public, to deliver King County services and to ensure that our workforce has good, supportive working conditions – all within a fiscally responsible budget.  These labor policies reflect this vision.”

“I am impressed with the level of collaboration between Councilmembers, the Executive and labor representatives,” said Councilmember Jan Drago. “The changes we’ve made to the labor policies lay a solid foundation to reset King County’s budget and to help maintain critical regional services.”

This work is complimentary to the work of County Executive Constantine, who has also made labor policy a key point of his administration. The Legislative and Executive branches of County Government have been in discussions with labor representatives throughout the year.

“I am encouraged by the county-wide teamwork we are seeing – elected officials, our valued employees, and the public – as together we take on the most serious financial challenges that county government has ever faced,” said Executive Constantine.

The King County Charter established the King County Executive as the bargaining agent for the County in labor negotiations. The adopted labor policy are the Council’s directives to the Executive and his Labor Relations Director for future negotiations with the bargaining units representing County employees. 63 of the County’s 73 bargaining units are preparing for contract negotiations in 2011. The adopted policies include:

Compensation: All changes in wages must be fiscally responsible, fair, and reasonable, and any policies mandating cost of living or other wage increases have been repealed. In negotiating potential changes in wages, the Executive will now consider economic conditions, including inflation or deflation, in the region, comparable market compensation, and the status of county reserves. Any cost of living adjustments (COLAs) will now be linked to specific Bureau of Labor Statistics Index information. The Executive will also negotiate agreements that allow bargaining to be reopened on total compensation when significant shifts in economic and fiscal conditions occur during the contract.

Benefits: County employees already make co-payments toward their health and medical benefits. The goal of the adopted labor policy is that that those co-payments will be equal to the average of payments made by employees of large public and private sector employers in the Puget Sound area. Those employers will include: Pierce and Snohomish counties; the cities of Seattle, Tacoma, Everett, Bellevue, Redmond, Renton and Kent; the Port of Seattle; the University of Washington; and the State of Washington.

Reductions in force: It will be the policy of the County that layoffs will now—where appropriate—be based on merit. If two or more employees within a class are of equal merit, county seniority shall determine the order of layoff between those employees.  Where there is a contract in place, the order of layoff will be determined by the collective bargaining agreement.

Overtime: The new adopted policy stresses that overtime should be assigned as needed in response to unforeseen circumstances and not as a means to accomplish day to day work.

Use of temporary and part-time employees: To increase efficiency, it will be County policy to have jobs that involve the need for half-time employees filled when necessary by full-time employees and to consolidate less than full time positions whenever possible.

Councilmember Hague said the Committee is committed to meeting with both the Executive and labor on a regular basis to review and discuss the adopted policies. She said the intent is to revive the policy to meet with labor representatives on a quarterly basis, with the first meeting to take place in September before the start of the 2011 budget negotiations.