AFSCME on-call workers to Multnomah County: ‘no thanks’

By Don McIntosh

Across Multnomah County government, about 300 on-call and temporary workers are employed in multiple departments, doing the same jobs as union-represented regular permanent employees, but at lower pay, and without benefits or union representation. Bothered by the disparity, in early 2017 over half of them signed cards to join AFSCME Local 88 — the union that represents 2,600 of their Multnomah County coworkers. Based on state law, they thought that was all they needed to do to join the union.

We do the same work, in the same conditions, and yet are treated a lot differently.” — Celia Throop, on-call at Multnomah County’s mental health crisis line

But attorneys for Multnomah County filed objections, arguing that on-call and temp workers shouldn’t be in the same bargaining unit as their permanent co-workers, because they don’t share a “community of interest.” A state administrative law judge bought that argument, but was overruled by the Oregon Employment Relations Board (ERB). Now union and county leaders are trying to settle the dispute. If they can’t agree, leaving it to ERB to resolve might require the two sides to litigate the “community of interest” question for every one of 75 separate job classifications — a costly and time-consuming prospect.

On Jan. 24, Multnomah County made a settlement offer: add about 95 workers in 10 classifications to the union bargaining unit, while leaving 219 workers in 65 other classifications still unrepresented. That didn’t go over well with the County workers who are active in the union campaign.

“That’s not what being part of a union is about,” said on-call mental health crisis line worker Celia Throop, who’s in one of the jobs the county agreed to add to the union. “We’re in this together.”

Throop and others in her position fill vacancies when regular employees are attending trainings, on vacation, or out on sick leave. Throop says she’s worked 2,000 hours in the last 12 months — basically full-time — but unlike the workers she fills in for, she gets no health insurance, no retirement benefit, no shift differential pay, no pay step increases, and no union representation.

“We do the same work, in the same conditions, and yet are treated a lot differently,” Throop told the Labor Press.

At a Jan. 30 meeting of the union organizing committee, Throop and others rejected the county’s offer overwhelmingly.

“The County prides itself on being a progressive employer, but it’s not acting like it,” said Jane Corry, a youth librarian who works on-call at the Multnomah County Library. “It’s not fair to on-call workers to be treated as though the work they’re doing is lesser.”

“They need to recognize all on-call workers, not just some,” said bilingual library assistant Sara Garcia Gonzalez. Garcia Gonzalez used to be a permanent full-time library employee — and a union steward — but now works on-call, with no benefits, no union representation, and about $3 less in hourly wages. She and other workers active in the campaign concluded that the County’s offer was meant to divide them.

“The County is always talking about equity, inclusion, diversity … I want to see action.”

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