Sheriff Noelle wants county prisoners to replace union janitorial workers

By DON McINTOSH, Staff Reporter

Prisoners guarded by armed deputies may replace union janitors and maintenance workers cleaning some Multnomah County buildings and grounds, if a proposal by Multnomah County Sheriff Dan Noelle wins favor among county commissioners.

The proposal, aired in early May, was considered at the commission's May 23 meeting.

To deal with a $20 million budget shortfall, Interim County Chair Bill Farver asked each county department to submit budget-cutting proposals. The sheriff's office responded with a call for county inmates to do a third of the janitorial work at county buildings, landscaping and mowing at all 50 county locations, and all of the county's window cleaning and pressure washing. If enacted, the proposal would result in the layoff of 25 to 30 union janitors employed by Everclean Maintenance and ServiceMaster. Those workers are represented by Service Employees International Union Local 49.

Four maintenance workers represented by American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees Local 88 would also lose their jobs.

About $3.3 million a year is currently spent for janitorial and ground maintenance services in public buildings. Under the sheriff's proposal, prison labor would be used to perform $1.1 million of those services.

The sheriff's office would use 30 to 40 inmates in crews of eight, said Dan Oldham, executive assistant to Sheriff Noelle. Only low-level inmates would take part, such as drunk drivers, parole violators and those convicted of misdemeanor property crimes. For their participation, they would win early release and be paid $1 a day. County inmates currently do landscaping work in contracts with Metro, the Housing Authority of Portland, and the Oregon Department of Transportation; they also do laundry and wash dishes in county facilities. At any one time, Multnomah County houses about 2,000 inmates.

"It's either going to be contracted employees or county employees that lose their jobs," Oldham said. Even with the proposed shift to inmate labor, the county plans to cut about 50 staff positions. The sheriff's office is losing the equivalent of 31.6 full-time positions by July 1.

Rhys Scholes, senior policy analyst for Farver, said the county will make every attempt to use attrition and bumping to prevent outright layoffs, but that some layoffs are likely.

When it learned of the proposal, SEIU Local 49 swung into action, arguing that the county was going back on its commitment to guaranteeing a living wage for contracted workers. Nearly 300 workers are covered under the living wage ordinance, including contracted janitors, security guards, and food service workers. Under the county's living wage ordinance, contractors that pay a living wage are favored in the bidding process. The ordinance considers a living wage to be $9.20 an hour, which can include benefits.

Annie Choi, owner of Everclean Maintenance, said it's unfortunate to see "hardworking decent citizens losing work to prisoners." She said it's ironic that the inmate labor proposal is coming from the sheriff, given that currently, department policy does not permit janitors who have a criminal record to clean its buildings. Oldham said he's fielded numerous calls critical of the inmate labor proposal.

To dramatize their opposition, janitors and union staff put on striped "convict" uniforms and staged a satiric theater piece outside the Multnomah County Library May 15. In the skit, union janitors sweeping the library steps were overwhelmed and replaced by prisoners.

Then May 23, about 40 janitors and supporters turned up at county headquarters to protest the proposal, while the commission met inside. The commission must approve its 2001-2002 budget by June 15 for the fiscal year that begins July 1. The decision on whether to use inmate labor will take place within the overall budget discussion. The Multnomah County budget is approximately $1 billion, but most of that money consists of pass-through funds from the state and federal government that are obligated for specific programs. The county's discretionary budget of general funds is about $300 million, and it's that amount that is short $20 million because of an unanticipated and unexplained reduction in business income tax revenues.

To increase revenue, the sheriff's office seeks to rent more jail beds to the federal government, but Scholes said no one is proposing an increase in the business income tax rate.

At the May 23 hearing, Commissioner Serena Cruz said she was explicitly opposed to the inmate labor proposal. Commissioner Lonnie Roberts also voiced criticisms. Though Farver and Interim Commissioner Pauline Anderson are hearing testimony, incoming Commissioner Maria Rojo de Steffey and incoming Chair Diane Linn will be the ones to vote on the final budget after they're sworn in June 5. Linn, who turned up at the library for the May 15 skit, said she didn't yet know how she would vote. "There are a lot of other county jobs at stake," she said.

In a dramatic moment at the hearing, Sheriff Noelle opened his testimony by turning away from the commissioners and addressing some 40 of his employees in the room, whom he'd asked to stand. "Twenty of you may lose your jobs," Noelle said, jobs, he added, that would be harder to replace than janitor jobs. Noelle said it was regrettable that the campaign against his proposal has "pitted union against union."

With jobs of its own at stake, AFSCME Local 88, which represents most county employees, has not yet taken a position on the proposal; its Executive Board will consider the matter at its June 6 meeting.

The Oregon AFL-CIO is firmly against the proposal. In testimony before the commission President Tim Nesbitt said, "This proposal, in the name of cost savings, asks you to renege on a commitment you made to the living wage, and it asks you to use forced labor."

At the State Legislature, Nesbitt has been working with AFSCME and the Oregon State Building and Construction Trades Council to oppose several attempts to expand the use of inmate labor. State prisoners already are required to work under a 1994 ballot measure approved by voters.

Local 49 is appealing to supporters to call commissioners to ask them to reject the proposal.

Linn can be reached at 503-988-3308; Rojo de Steffey at 503-988-5220; Cruz at 503-988-5219; Naito at 503-988-5217; and Roberts at 503-988-5213.

June 1, 2001 issue

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