By Don McIntosh
Multnomah County Commission could soon consider an ordinance aimed at deterring union-busting by the county’s social service contractors.
At the direction of Multnomah County Chair Deborah Kafoury, county legal and human resources staff are working to craft an ordinance that would withstand legal challenge while curbing misuse of public dollars. The idea was put forward by the union Oregon AFSCME after one county-funded non-profit spent resources to discourage employees from unionizing, and another ran up attorney billable hours dragging out negotiations over a first contract.
County commissioners might want to discourage those kinds of private expenses on the public dime, but the county’s lawyers think they’ll need a different approach than one tried in Milwaukee County, Wisconsin. There, a requirement that county contractors sign “labor peace agreements” was struck down by a federal district court in 2005 because of a 1959 Supreme Court decision that says certain kinds of local labor laws are pre-empted by the National Labor Relations Act.
A “union-neutrality” ordinance could prove to be one of several reforms aimed at improving Multnomah County services. In 2017, the county hired the non-profit Human Services Research Institute to analyze the strengths and weaknesses of county-funded mental health and addiction services. The group published its findings last June in a 130-page report that validated what Oregon AFSCME had been saying for years: Low pay and heavy caseloads at county mental health service providers are making it hard for them to recruit and retain staff, resulting in high turnover and lower quality services.
In fact, those conditions have spurred workers at several non-profits to unionize. At Volunteers of America Oregon, 70 workers at two addiction treatment centers unionized in 2016, and then battled for 18 months to get a first contract. And at Cascadia Behavioral Health, 270 mental health and addiction recovery workers at five outpatient clinics unionized last October and November despite an active anti-union campaign by management.
Oregon AFSCME appealed to county commissioners last summer for help, and found they were sympathetic.
“I don’t think it’s news to anybody that the workforce in both mental health and substance abuse is overworked and underpaid,” said Renee Huizinga, policy director for Multnomah County Commissioner Sharon Meieran. “There are systemic things driving that, and one of those is the reimbursement rate.”
Huizinga said increasing the rate at which providers are reimbursed for behavioral health services is a top state legislative priority for the county this year.
Meanwhile, a neutrality ordinance is on its way. Multnomah County spokesperson Julie Sullivan-Springhetti said it’s taking longer than expected to develop because county managers are contending with leadership changes, a workplace investigation, and new computer software.