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Legislative staff can’t unionize in Washington. A new bill would change that

A bill introduced in this year's state legislative session would allow workers in that branch of government to unionize.   (JESSE TINSLEY)
A bill introduced in this year's state legislative session would allow workers in that branch of government to unionize.  (JESSE TINSLEY)

OLYMPIA – When Nikkole Hughes started working as a staffer for the House of Representatives in 2014, she was “pretty oblique” about what she was getting herself into.

She needed health insurance and a paid job, and as a staffer for the Office of Program Research – a nonpartisan policy, legal and fiscal service for the state House – she got that.

After starting, she began working long hours and bosses, she said, created a “world of chaos.” Hughes was a staffer under former Rep. Jeff Morris, D-Mount Vernon, who had been investigated in 2019 and found to have violated personnel policies against harassment and intimidation.

“I existed in that realm of chronic stress and chaos for four years,” Hughes said.

Being a legislative staffer often comes with long hours, low pay and little vacation time, and in worst-case scenarios, hostile work environments, Hughes said. Staff members have very little power to change it. Legislative staff are not covered by state civil service laws that grant state employees collective bargaining rights.

But this session, a proposal co-sponsored by Spokane Democrat Rep. Marcus Riccelli could change that by giving employees of the legislative branch the ability to take part in collective bargaining.

“We have a lot of folks who come as public servants, and we have turnover and burnout because some of these things aren’t considered,” Riccelli said.

This bill would grant employees of the legislative branch collective bargaining rights similar to other state employees. Those include employees of the following:

  • The Joint Legislative Audit and Review Committee.
  • The Statute Law Committee.
  • The Legislative Ethics Board.
  • The Legislative Evaluation and Accountability Program Committee.
  • The Office of the State Actuary.
  • The Legislative Service Center.
  • The Legislative Support Services.
  • The Joint Transportation Committee.
  • The Redistricting Commission.

Those in management roles, such as members of the Legislature, the chief clerk and deputy chief clerk of the House, the secretary and deputy secretary of the Senate, chiefs of staff and counsel for the House and Senate, would not be included.

Bargaining could include wages, hours and other terms and conditions of employment. Negotiations must start no later than July 1 of each even-numbered year, according to the bill.

The bill would simply extend the rights to legislators, Riccelli said. It doesn’t require it.

Democrats in both chambers told reporters last week the bills would get public hearings, but were unsure how far they would go. Sen. Rebecca Saldaña, D-Seattle, said she supports the bill.

The opportunity to take part in collective bargaining is something that is “fundamental to our democracy,” she said.

House Speaker Laurie Jinkins, D-Tacoma, told reporters Wednesday she supports collective bargaining at most levels of legislative staff, but sometimes there can be problems. For example, lawmakers who are newly elected will often bring new legislative staff, particularly assistants, with them. She said she wasn’t sure if that would be allowed under this bill.

This year’s bill has many co-sponsors in both the House and the Senate, mostly Democrats.

When asked about the proposal last week, Republican leaders said they had yet to see the full bill. House Minority Leader J.T. Wilcox, R-Yelm, said he thought his staff was “pretty happy,” but he would have to look at the bill before knowing how the caucus felt.

Riccelli proposed a similar bill in 2019, but it died in a House fiscal committee.

During a vote in committee that year, Rep. Bruce Chandler, R-Granger, urged members not to vote for the bill because treating the Legislature as an administrative agency, which would allow for staffers to unionize, could “fundamentally change” its duty and mission.

Chandler also said it could be a “conflict of interest” because it was unclear how contract negotiations would work.

Riccelli said earlier this month there may be some concerns about the mechanics of the proposal. Because the Legislature has operated this way for so long, it could be “administratively difficult” to make the changes. He said those concerns will likely be worked out throughout the legislative process.

There are always strong opinions about collective bargaining and they will likely come out when debating the bill this session, he added.

In the past, it has been difficult to pass the bill because legislative staff are not allowed to lobby or influence legislation, former staffer Nigel Herbig said. If staff members try to pursue the bill or speak out in support, they could be fired.

In September, Hughes came back from a two-week leave to find out she had been fired from her position in the Legislature. She said she still doesn’t know why.

Her termination letter explains that she is an at-will employee and could be terminated at any time without reason. If she had a union to go to, she said she may not have been “blindsided.”

“Even though what happened to me happened, I am still deeply invested to make sure what happened to me never happens to anyone ever again,” Hughes said.

Herbig worked as a legislative assistant for almost nine years and said he had a “generally good” experience.

Legislative assistants do “a little bit of everything,” Herbig said. They deal with scheduling, constituent correspondence, tracking bills and some policy development.

Former Spokane City Council Member Kate Burke, who was a legislative assistant to Spokane Sen. Andy Billig until 2017, said she also had a good experience.

But most of a staffer’s experience is dependent on which lawmaker is their boss, Herbig said.

While their experiences were good, both Herbig and Burke had heard stories from colleagues about overtime hours without any pay or comp time, little to no vacation time and emails and calls from members at all hours of the night.

When issues do arise, there’s not much staffers can do, Burke said. They can go to their boss, but often that boss is either a legislator or works for a legislator.

“There’s a power dynamic between staff and members because members cannot be fired,” Hughes said. “They can only be fired by their constituents if they are voted out of office.”

Some members have been disciplined following mistreatment of staff. Members can have their staff taken away. Rep. Jesse Young, R-Gig Harbor, was restricted from supervising staff in 2017 after accusations of mistreatment. Morris lost his position as chair of the House Technology and Economic Development Committee.

The ability to bargain could work out some of these issues, Herbig said. It could give members and staff clear guidance about what the expectations are.

“A union is a really obvious way to go about addressing workplace issues,” Herbig said. “It would be impossible to ignore for Senate and House leadership. They would have to sit down and bargain.”

Better wages, hours and communication could then lead to less burnout and turnover, Herbig said. He said he would come to Olympia at the start of each session and see about a third of staff members were gone.

If the bill passes, Burke said she thinks many staffers would unionize. They need it, she said.

“It’s good all around for people in the Legislature,” Burke said.

The Senate version of the bill is scheduled for a public hearing in committee at 9:30 a.m. Monday. The House version of the bill is scheduled for a public hearing in committee at 10 a.m. Tuesday.

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.

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