By MALLORY GRUBEN
The day after this story went to press, the appeals court issued its decision. Scroll to the bottom for an update.
The prison they worked at has closed, but the Teamsters-represented workers at Larch Corrections Center in Yacolt, Washington, aren’t giving up the fight for a fair layoff process.
Teamsters Local 117 represents about 115 workers at the minimum security prison in Yacolt, Washington. On Oct. 10 — the same day the state Department of Corrections (DOC) closed the prison — Local 117 asked the state appeals court to temporarily halt any layoffs, so judges can review an earlier court decision that let DOC shut down the prison before resolving union grievances about a number of contract violations, including refusing to bargain over the closure, violating workers’ seniority rights, and improperly offering employment to bargaining unit members in exchange for ceasing union activities. That appeal was still pending when this issue went to press.
DOC spokesperson Chris Wright said the agency disagrees with the union’s claims.
“DOC adhered to the layoff process outlined in the Collective Bargaining Agreement,” Wright wrote in an email to the Labor Press.
In June, DOC announced it would “warm close” Larch in October. A warm closure means the DOC would no longer use the prison to house inmates, but it could reopen the facility in the future.
Local 117 members say Larch is nationally recognized for the programs it offers for incarcerated adults. It has an “innovative partnership” with Clark College that helps prisoners earn their GEDs, a key factor in reducing their chance of returning to prison after they are released. Of those enrolled in that program, 85% graduate. Larch also offers job training that includes a more than 50-year partnership with the State Department of Natural Resources to train and deploy crews to fight wildfires.
The closure announcement rocked the community and drew ire from workers, prisoners, and politicians. The Washington State Labor Council AFL-CIO passed a resolution opposing Larch’s closure, and the state lawmakers representing Clark County sent a letter to DOC Secretary Cheryl Strange and Governor Jay Inslee urging them to keep the facility open.
“Closing Larch Correctional Center would be a detriment to the Southwest Washington community. Not only would we lose jobs, but our community would become less safe,” Representative Sharon Wylie, a Vancouver Democrat, said in a prepared statement. “Allowing these individuals to serve their sentence close to home keeps visitations regular. It also grants opportunities for returning individuals to utilize their new skills in the workforce with a strong support system upon release. Both are key to reducing recidivism. This decision would reverse so much progress we’ve made regarding criminal justice reform.”
Despite the backlash, DOC moved forward with the closure. In August, a spokesperson with Inslee’s office told the media that there are no plans to delay or change course with the plan.
DOC had promised to offer every worker at Larch another job within DOC or at similar agencies like the Washington Association of Sheriffs and Police Chiefs or Oregon’s Department of Corrections. And it agreed to meet with Local 117 representatives for “effects bargaining,” or bargaining in response to a management decision that affects union work.
But Local 117 representatives say before bargaining started, DOC managers started offering new jobs to a small group of workers. According to court documents, those offers were made without Local 117’s knowledge, and they were not made based on seniority — both violations of the union contract. In one of the incidents, DOC Comptroller Anita Kendall coerced a worker to resign from the Local 117 bargaining team in exchange for a job offer and $5,000 relocation stipend.
When DOC made job offers to the rest of the workers, managers provided “formal” options to transfer within the agency, and “informal” options to apply with other employers. But they botched that process, too, said Shawn Piliponis, a corrections specialist and Local 117 member at Larch.
“Some people were offered demotions. Some weren’t offered jobs at all,” he said.
Office Assistant Amanda Mitchell said managers offered to transfer her to other DOC facilities for another office position. The new job would have been a pay cut of about $4 an hour, and it would have required a 100-mile commute from the house she purchased last year in Clark County.
“I closed on my house last November, so I can’t sell my house. I have a family. I have two generations above me, so my grandma and my mom are here, and I can’t leave them,” Mitchell said. “Not only financially can I not do it, it would devastate us because we are so new to the property. It would damage our credit scores, and then I don’t know if we could find anywhere else to live or rent.”
Instead, Mitchell asked for her job options outside of DOC. Managers told her there was nothing.
“And then I found out within a week of getting that email that they offered a position I’m qualified for — and because of my seniority it should have been offered to me — to someone out of my classification. They offered it to a custodian instead of an office assistant,” Mitchell said.
On Sept. 14, Local 117 filed a lawsuit asking a Clark County Superior Court Judge to stop the closure until the contract dispute could be resolved in arbitration. On Oct. 9, the judge ruled against the union, saying Local 117 didn’t have enough evidence that the contract was violated, or that DOC overstepped its authority when deciding to close the facility.
Local 117 is appealing that decision. Because there is no work available at Larch now that the facility is closed, DOC put any worker facing a layoff on paid administrative leave. Mitchell said some coworkers had already relocated for new jobs within DOC, but they cannot start until the appeal is resolved.
UPDATE: On Oct. 18, the appeals court issued a ruling denying Local 117’s request for an injunction. DOC notified workers that day that workers who had transferred jobs could start, and any layoffs were effective at that point. Local 117 remained in effects bargaining and planned to pursue several grievances and unfair labor practice violations through an arbitration process.
“The Court’s decision does not change the fact that the DOC acted inexcusably without input from labor, community, and other affected stakeholders to close a model facility,” Local 117’s Director of Correction and Law Enforcement Sarena Davis said in a prepared statement.
CORRECTION: This story includes a photo of Local 117 members watching the Oct. 6 Clark County Superior Court hearing on their case. An earlier version of the caption incorrectly stated they were watching the appeals court hearing.