By COLIN STAUB
It’s been a trying few years for Multnomah County employees. Assaults on librarians and maintenance workers. Hundreds of vacant jobs. Pay that’s lagging behind the cost of living.
In AFSCME Local 88’s first full contract negotiation in five years, the union bargaining team wants to address these problems. Workers want clear standards for what constitutes a safe workplace, and they want management to ensure those standards are met. If they aren’t, the union says workers must be allowed to decline to work until it’s safe. Workers also want a realistic workload that doesn’t foist the duties of unfilled jobs on current employees. And they want a raise that acknowledges inflation.
“We understand that we are asking for a lot,” says Joslyn Baker, president of Local 88. “We make no apologies about that. Our members are angry and burned out and stressed.”
The Local 88 general unit contract covers nearly 2,800 county workers. Separate contracts cover county physicians, dentists, pharmacists and juvenile custody workers.
The current contract for the general unit was set to expire June 30, 2020 but was extended with cost-of-living adjustments for a year, and then another, due to the pandemic. Now, bargaining is under way on on a new contract. Over the past few months, county and union bargaining teams have met and presented their offers.
Local 88 is proposing a 7.9% raise and wants to increase the county employee minimum wage from $15 to $22 an hour.
Worker safety is also a top priority, in part because of a rise in assaults.
The county employs carpenters to maintain county facilities. They fix roofs and floors and do all manner of building upkeep. They often respond to after-hours calls, going to board up broken windows in the middle of the night.
These days, carpenters are facing sketchy situations even in broad daylight. In the first week of May, a carpenter was up on a ladder repairing a door someone had damaged at a county facility. While he was working, the person who damaged the door began charging at the carpenter and trying to attack him. The worker had to defend himself while on the ladder.
Another worker was recently chased from the job site back to his van, where he got in and locked the doors. Maintenance workers have been followed when they leave work, and they’ve had to drive around to lose the pursuer before going home.
“Public servants right now are really under attack,” says Becky Lillie, a lead steward for Local 88 and an employee of the county’s facilities division. Lillie says many county employees hide their ID badges when they leave work so they’re not targeted. But some staff don’t have that option.
“Our trades workers are required to wear uniforms, so they’re just out there,” Lillie says. “They’re going from building to building all day long, they have to walk to their vehicles, and they’re really targets.”
Violence has entered the libraries as well. In the last year, library workers have been stalked, head-butted and beaten by patrons, says Manuel Arellano, a lead steward and employee at the North Portland branch of Multnomah County Library.
“This has reduced the morale in our workforce,” Arellano says.
People have walked into libraries carrying knives or bricks. On March 5, Multnomah County closed the Central Library after one library patron stabbed another in an elevator. The Woodstock Library was similarly closed March 22 after someone having a mental health crisis brought weapons to the library.
Local 88 wants contract language saying management is obligated to remedy unsafe working conditions identified by employees.
Jobs going unfilled
Arellano says having more library staff would improve conditions, but short-staffing is a problem across county departments. Local 88 estimates there are around 500 vacancies, including recruiter jobs. That means even the ability to post jobs and hire more people is impeded. That has consequences outside of safety.
“Our employees get left with these incredible workloads,” Baker said.
At press time, there were 105 current job listings open to members of the public on the county’s website, and some of the listings were for multiple positions.
Union leaders want to increase multiple types of paid leave in a push for equity.
Robin Easton-Davis, a union steward who works in the county’s Preschool For All program, said many employees of color are newer to the job, so their vacation accrues at a lower rate under the contract. (Vacation accrues based on years of service.) The union bargaining team proposes increasing accrual for newer workers to support the workforce diversity efforts.
The union is also proposing a new category of trauma and toxic stress leave, providing a week of paid leave available after any traumatic event.
“Oftentimes, the person who is accused of harm is put on administrative paid leave, and so why not have paid leave for the staff who are experiencing the harm,” Easton-Davis said.
Additionally, the county has made a point of observing Indigenous Peoples’ Day, but it’s not a paid holiday. Local 88 wants to change that.
“If we’re going to say those things, we should follow through and actually have a paid day where people can take the time off and reflect on whose land we’re actually on,” Easton-Davis said.