Too little, too late

College staff struggle with pay equity issues

By Josh Kelety

Originally published in the November 2014 issue. 

Orson Williamson is the only facilities electrician at Seattle Central. In his words, he is “always putting out ‘fires’” on campus. One such fire was the flooding of several computer labs on the third floor of the Broadway Edison building on Friday October 18th, due to busted piping. The water damage was extensive. The power had to be shut off, the water removed, and computer servers dried out and tested for functionality before the coming Monday, when students would need access to the labs. It was the epitome of a royal mess.

For Williamson, dealing with situations like the flood are just a day in the life. “Those [kinds of] issues come up all the time,” he said.

Williamson is one of many classified staff make up the backbone of the college. They are the people behind the curtain changing the light bulbs and processing financial aid applications. They are the janitors, program coordinators, plumbers, electricians, secretaries, advisors, and IT technicians, who keep the school running on an everyday basis.

These employees are part of the Washington Federation of State Employees (WFSE) union along with classified staff from numerous other community colleges across the state of Washington.

And though it’s been roughly six years since the 2008 recession, many are still feeling its effects and are only just now getting some relief. Classified staff are in that boat, having recently secured a minor pay increase in their next two year annual contract. They will receive a 3% bump in 2015 and 1.8% the following year. Part time employees for the first time ever obtained a 2% increase. But for many this is not enough.

“Our [Seattle] membership is not happy with the contract,” said Williamson. Williamson was a WFSE negotiator during the most recent bargaining cycle.

WFSE higher education workers have weathered some some rough waters since the recession, having been dealt a 3% one year pay cut back in 2012 as part of the State’s broader austerity measures on all government expenditures. Since then the original 3% cut has been restored but classified staff across the State have not received a cost of living adjustment (COLA) to compensate for rising inflation since July 1st 2008. The recently ratified 2015-2017 contract will include the first wage increase that classified staff have seen in six years, though by the end of the contract it will have been eight years without a COLA.

“No cost of living adjustment for eight years. I mean just think about that, that’s ridiculous. And then to be offered 3%? That’s like a slap in the face,” said Williamson.

Seattle Central’s classified staff bargain collectively as a coalition with their fellow union members from Washington’s twelve community colleges for their annual two year statewide contract. They negotiate directly with the State Office of Financial Management who represent both Governor Inslee’s Office and management from the various community and technical colleges. The colleges’ classified staff have been bargaining as a coalition since 2004 when the respective administrations opted to have OFM facilitate negotiations as is allowed by State Law.

The new contract still has to be approved by the State Legislature.

High cost of living in King County

Though the Seattle Colleges District union membership voted down the new contract having deemed it to be too little too late, it was still ratified by the rest union across the State.

King County has the most expensive cost of living compared to any other county in the entire state of Washington, with prices in Seattle quickly skyrocketing. In 2013 Seattle rents were ranked as the fastest rising rents in the nation by Census Bureau data, and the gross median Seattle rent was tagged at $1,172, a 11% increase since 2010.

“In Moses Lake [Grant County], $34,000 a year would be enough for a house, a yard, and [to] not [have to] worry about bills. Unfortunately that is not the same way in King County. In King County $34,000 a year is basically poverty level,” said Ty Pethe, a Seattle Central program coordinator within Student Leadership.

During the course of last summers’ bargaining sessions, Pethe compiled statistics from a survey of all 506 classified employees within the Seattle Colleges District to illustrate the pay equity issues.

He found that:

  • 290 employees start at wages below $15 per hour while 148 positions start at above 15.
  • 14 will never move beyond $15 per hour
  • 68 start above the per capita personal income, and only 30 are or will eventually reach the King County median household income of $67,000 per year.
  • Out of the 506 employees, 385 at the highest possible pay grade [step M] would eventually or currently do qualify for Seattle & King County housing assistance. Four employees at step M are eligible for Washington SNAP food stamps.

“As the adage goes: ‘State employees are underworked and overpaid’. That couldn’t be farther from the truth,” said Williamson.

A 2014 city-commissioned UW study on Seattle living costs and low wage workers found that a living wage in the city is estimated to be around $25.44 dollars an hour for a single parent with one child.

31 of the 82 classified staff pay scales max out at step M below the UW study’s living wage estimate.

“We clearly understand, classified employees, particularly at the lower classifications within their pay structure, struggle to meet the costs of working and living Seattle. That is just part of reality,” said Charles Sims, Human Resources Officer for the Seattle Colleges District.

Lisa Sandoval, a program manager in the Seattle Central IT department said that an ideal contract would have brought  a 10-12% raise and tied  salaries to current inflation rates.

“Right now how it is, is that we’re just getting broker and broker,” said Sandoval.

Geographic Pay & Local Funds

Geographic pay (adjusting employee wages relative to area-specific costs of living), is seen by some classified staff as a way to compensate for Seattle and King County’s high living costs. However, it has been repeatedly kept off the table by the Office of Financial Management, according to Williamson and other classified staff. “Geographic pay was the first thing their side [OFM] threw out and said that they would not do,” said Pethe.

Janetta Sheehan, a lead OFM labor negotiator during the bargaining for the most recent contract, declined to comment on the office’s position regarding geographic pay in the negotiations.

“OFM determined that it would be easier for them to draw a line item [for the governor’s budget], and easier to negotiate one time for everybody, rather than go around to 12 different colleges,” said Williamson.

Geographic pay does exist for certain State employees, such as Washington State Patrol troopers, who receive a 10% pay increase if they live and work in King County.

“They’re [OFM] cheap sons of bitches … they don’t want to pay for it,” said Max Phipps, a classified staff photographer at Everett Community College.

“It’s all numbers, that’s how the State looks at it. What is it going to cost?” said Tom Cline, an IT specialist at Peninsula College and member of the bargaining team for the 2015-2017 contract.

While geographic pay seems like a no-brainer for workers living in high cost counties and cities, elsewhere in the State the same pay rates have more purchasing power, causing a divide in WFSE membership and raising issues of pay equity and fairness.

“I think we got a really good contract,” said Cline. “We have to work in [into the contract] what is best for all 12 colleges, not just any single college.”

Cline works at Peninsula College located in Clallam County which skirts the strait of Juan de Fuca in Northwest Washington.

“People [state employees] are expected to be treated the same for the same work,” said Diane Lutz, OFM’s Labor Relations Section Chief.

Bargaining for locally generated college funds (in addition to State allocated contract funding), has also been shelved by OFM, a consequence of the coalition-wide contract negotiation system. Local funds are revenue that individual colleges generate to make up for the shortfalls left by slashed public funding for higher ed, such as tuition (particularly international student tuition), rent from college owned properties such as the building housing the Egyptian movie theater, and the funds from the parking garage on Harvard Avenue.

Increasingly community colleges are having to lean on these local revenue streams. The Seattle College District’s fiscal year 2014-2015 budget shows that the total State allocation is a meager 30%, with tution making up 17%, and the rest being a combination of grants and the other various local revenue sources.

Nothing in state law explicitly prevents classified staff from being paid with local funds, save for the difficulty of ironing out area-specific pay in a single contract that affects classified staff state-wide.

Tim Welch, Director of Public Affairs for WFSE, said that having access to local funds would help buffer classified staff from the austerity measures of 2008. “If local funds were available at discretion, that would increase the chance, if there was [another] economic downturn, that members would get something [substantial] out of their contracts.”


Retention issues

Some classified staff have concerns regarding potential problems with employee retention and turnover. The Seattle College District had a 7.7% turnover rate  amongst classified staff in 2013, while Shoreline Community College allegedly had 20% according to a letter written to Governor Inslee by Tom Lux, the Chair of the Shoreline Community College Board of trustees.

In the letter Lux also calls out OFM’s “lack of respect” for classified staff during the contract negotiations, and says that 93% of the college’s classified employees qualify for housing assistance.

“We have had five failed searches for classified positions … We found qualified candidates but then when we told them what their salary was they said ‘thanks but no thanks’. And that’s pretty significant I think,” said Owens.

“I’m truly worried that Seattle Colleges will be in the same position and facing the same problem in the next year or two,” said Pethe.

Sims said that retention is a constant unavoidable battle that underfunded public institutions like Seattle Central face and that the private sector will always be an attractive lure. “We [the District] can’t compete with Microsoft … In some job categories we can’t even compete with the City of Seattle or King County,” said Sims.

With Seattle’s minimum wage set to increase gradually to 15 dollars an hour beginning April 2015, by the end of WFSE’s current contract in 2017, many employees in the District will be making less than minimum wage. 10 of the 82 pay scales for classified employees peak at under 15 dollars an hour.

“There are so many employees, for whom, within a year or so, the outside market will look very attractive,” said Williamson.

Sims indicated that the District will eventually look into a pay increase for classified staff making less than 15 dollars an hour as the gradual city wage hike progresses.

According to Williamson, during the most recent negotiations the WFSE bargaining team attempted to win a hike to 15 an hour for those who are making under that amount, but the endeavour was unsuccessful.

Sandoval, who has been working at Seattle Central for around 10 years, said that she has begun searching for new work due to low pay.

Breaking from the coalition herd

With the unbending uniformity of the state-wide OFM contracts, classified staff within the Seattle Colleges and other Puget Sound area college districts are having second thoughts regarding being a part of the coalition. Specifically how it limits their ability to bargain for area-specific pay contracts given the higher costs of living along the I-5 corridor.

Cline said that losing colleges and their membership from the coalition would weaken the statewide union.

“We can’t compete in this coalition when we are outvoted by other members in the coalition,” said Williamson.

Some see the coalition community colleges administrations’ voluntary ‘employment’ of OFM for labor negotiations as a way for individual college and district administrations to avoid responsibility of taking care of their employees.

“I think that it [coalition bargaining with OFM] is a very convenient out for them because they don’t have to make the tough decisions,” said Jerry Owens, a Chemistry Instructional Tech at Shoreline Community College.

Sims doesn’t agree. “they [WFSE] know and clearly understand that they don’t bargain directly with us. So it’s not necessarily something that the District or the other coalition members see as a heat shield between us and classified staff,” he said.

Pethe claimed that the District benefits from bargaining as a coalition because the State’s direct involvement helps assure a funding allocation for WFSE contracts and removes all responsibility from the District. He says that local bargaining would force the District to negotiate with both the union and the State for labor funds.

“They [the District] would have to argue with the State Board of Technical and Community Colleges (which distributes state general funds allocated for community colleges) to increase their allocation to match any increases in the new [locally negotiated] contract,” he added.

All four year public colleges in Washington conduct labor negotiations individually and internally. Highline college is the only community and technical college to bargain independently.

Governing boards of colleges or college districts have final authority on the decision to continue using OFM. The process of terminating college bargaining agreements with OFM only requires a 30-day notice.

“They [college governing boards ] would just [have to] say ‘oh we don’t want to do this anymore,” said Lutz.

Seattle Central President Paul Killpatrick declined to give a statement regarding the college’s position on independent labor negotiations.

“It certainly would be a board level decision based on all the pros and cons, what some of the other colleges are doing, what’s the cost benefit of bargaining directly as opposed to bargaining as a coalition,” said Sims.

He added that while the District hasn’t discussed the possibility, they would give consideration to a proposal for local bargaining presented by Seattle’s WFSE membership.

Sims went on to say that the “tension” produced from general pay equity issues within community colleges stems from the State’s heavy reliance on consumer spending-driven sales tax. Washington has had consistent State budget shortfalls due to insufficient trickling tax revenue streams since 2008. “Until there is reform at that [State tax system] level we are going to go through this dance every year.”

Washington has been dubbed the state with the most regressive tax system in the nation, a system which disproportionately affects the low-income population.

“We have totally shifted the burden onto the working and middle class to [financially] support the functions of state government. And that is really, really, killing us,” said Owens.



2 thoughts on “Too little, too late

  1. Reblogged this on Josh Kelety and commented:

    An article of mine published in the November 2014 issue of the Central Circuit on pay equity issues for Seattle Central College employees, as well as the under-funding of community colleges in general.

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