911 in turmoil as Portland union contract goes to arbitration


On hold for 20 minutes at 911
These photos taken by a 911 worker are of the “hold clock” showing the longest current hold time. The 24 minute hold took place on Aug. 11 at 6 p.m. One call that came in at that time was about a distressed swimmer; by the time first responders arrived it was a body recovery.

AFSCME Local 189 has given up trying to get the City of Portland to agree on a new union contract for 911 call-takers. Instead, the two sides will submit their final offers to an arbitrator. And it could be six months or more before Employment Relations Board arbitrator Paul Roose even considers the case, because the City is asking that he schedule two full weeks to hear both sides, says union rep Rob Wheaton.

Wheaton describes a state of crisis at the city’s Bureau of Emergency Communications (BOEC), due to severe understaffing: BOEC is budgeted for up to 120 positions, but only has about 70 employees. That means daily forced overtime, and sometimes, dangerous call wait times. On the call floor, a time clock visible to all dispatchers displays the longest current time a caller has been on hold. At about 6 p.m. Aug. 11, it reached 24 minutes.

“BOEC is not a place where you can improve retention by throwing in beer taps and ping pong tables.” Wheaton said. Wheaton argues they need to raise wages to attract more people to what is a very tough job psychologically.

“The city’s response is, ‘We can’t afford it,’” Wheaton said.

911 Hold 23 MinutesUnder the old contract, which expired June 30, wages start at about $21.70 for trainees and rise to over $36 an hour for senior dispatchers.

Those might sound like good wages, but they’re not attracting enough applicants, or retaining enough of those who go through the training. And understaffing makes for overwork, which makes it harder for BOEC to retain workers. It’s a vicious cycle.

“People there work years without a weekend off or daylight hours.” says Local 189 Mark Gipson.

Wheaton says the City acknowledges there’s a problem, and its most recent proposal takes some steps to address it. But he says it still falls short of what’s needed, and the two sides were far apart when the union formally declared impasse.

State law says 911 operators can’t strike, so when union negotiations break down, an arbitrator hears arguments from both sides and picks whichever side’s offer is most reasonable.

“We think we have a good case,” says Wheaton.



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