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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Washington Legislative staff call in sick to protest failure of bill to let them unionize

A person walks near the Legislative Building, Wednesday, April 21, 2021, at the Capitol in Olympia.  (Ted S. Warren)

OLYMPIA – More than 100 legislative staffers called in sick on Wednesday to protest the Legislature’s failure to pass a bill allowing them to unionize.

Democratic leaders said about 50 House staffers and more than 30 from the Senate called in sick on Wednesday. Republican leaders said they had not heard of any of their staff members taking the day off.

The number may actually be higher. Former staffer Nikkole Hughes, who had advocated for the collective bargaining bill, wrote in a text to The Spokesman-Review that the number was 109 House and Senate Democratic communications staffers, policy staffers and legislative assistants.

Currently, legislative staff are not covered by the state’s civil service laws that grant state employees collective bargaining rights. A proposal by Spokane Democrat Rep. Marcus Riccelli would have given legislative branch employees the ability to take part in collective bargaining.

The bill failed to pass in its house of origin by a Tuesday deadline, effectively killing it for this session.

“For me, it’s a benefit to everybody when people join together and speak with a collective voice,” Riccelli told The Spokesman-Review. “I’m committed to continuing the work.”

Riccelli said he was hopeful the conversation could continue this session, during the interim and next session.

House Speaker Laurie Jinkins, D-Tacoma, said any kind of collective bargaining bill takes time to work out the details.

They’re “very complex things,” she said.

House Majority Leader Pat Sullivan, D-Covington, said there were not many other examples in the country for Washington to draw from, as no other state has a policy like this.

Despite the bill not making it to the floor, Jinkins said she was feeling good about the bill passing next year. The proposal was brought up for the first time in 2012 and has come up other times since, but has never made it out of Appropriations like it did this session, Riccelli said.

Democratic leaders showed their support for those who decided to call in sick. Staff members who called in sick had similar automatic email responses that read, “Due to recent events, I am unavailable this morning.”

Legislative staff can’t lobby, making it difficult for them to advocate for a bill like this. Jinkins said they have to work with the tools they have to express their opinions.

“That’s what I expect in terms of advocacy,” Jinkins said. “Our staff is really limited in the things they can do.”

Riccelli said he is supportive of people organizing in a collective voice.

“If this is a measure that they thought would bring attention, I support people standing up for their rights,” he said.

If the bill ever made it for a floor vote, House Minority Leader J.T. Wilcox, R-Yelm, said he would likely defer to their staffers about their thoughts on it.

Laurel Demkovich's reporting for The Spokesman-Review is funded in part by Report for America and by members of the Spokane community. This story can be republished by other organizations for free under a Creative Commons license. For more information on this, please contact our newspaper’s managing editor.