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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

WA DOC workers say they were wrongfully excluded from $1K pandemic bonuses

By Claire Withycombe Seattle Times

OLYMPIA – Most state workers can expect a $1,000 bonus in July for staying on at their jobs, but one group of workers at the Department of Corrections says they have been wrongfully excluded from getting it.

The Washington Federation of State Employees says the agency is refusing to pay 1,200 DOC workers the $1,000 “recognition and retention” bonus.

State workers continuously employed from July 1, 2022, to July 1, 2023, are eligible for the bonus, meant to recognize the work of public servants during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The department told staff in early June that the union’s employees aren’t eligible for the lump-sum payment. A spokesperson for the department said that the $1,000 payment wasn’t included in an award from an independent arbiter who handles all “compensation issues” for WFSE employees at DOC, and the agency is “required to carry out” the decisions of the arbiter.

Workers are signing a petition to urge the state to pay the bonus and union representatives say they intend to file grievances, a complaint with the state’s Public Employment Relations Commission and a lawsuit to get the issue addressed.

The Washington Federation of State Employees represents about 15% of the DOC’s roughly 8,000 total workers. Many of the people the union represents work in community corrections, helping people rejoin their communities after incarceration.

Jim Furchert, a community corrections officer in Mount Vernon, said that during the pandemic, he and his colleagues ventured out every day, risking COVID, to work with people re-entering society.

“I got up, I went to work, I left my family at home, I went and did a dangerous job at times and came home at night,” Furchert said. “And now, even though that’s been bargained, someone has made the decision we’re not going to get that. That’s real detrimental to our morale.”

Other DOC workers will get the $1,000 payment, including workers not represented by any union, those represented by a different union – the Teamsters – and managers at the agency, said Bill Copland, a DOC employee and union shop steward through WFSE.

“If DOC management who worked from home are getting this bonus, the folks who worked on the front lines of the pandemic should get it,” said Mike Yestramski, president of WFSE and a psychiatric social worker at Western State Hospital, in a statement this week. “That’s who it was meant for. The contract language clearly spells this out.”

More than 400 workers at the Department of Corrections have signed a petition calling on that agency’s management and the Office of Financial Management to pay the bonus.

The bonus was included in a collective bargaining agreement with state workers, approved by the Legislature earlier this year. It covers the two-year budget cycle starting July 1.

The Washington Federation of State Employees said DOC management sent an email this month saying the union’s workers wouldn’t be receiving the bonus.

The email, provided to the Seattle Times by the union, sent to all staff stated that employees represented by WFSE at DOC “are not eligible for the recognition and retention lump sum.”

“The lump sum was not included in any of the compensation proposals during 2023-25 CBA negotiations and therefore was not part of the interest arbitration award,” the email said.

Chris Wright, spokesperson for the Department of Corrections, said all compensation issues for WFSE employees at the department are handled through a process called interest arbitration.

Interest arbitration is where a third party, an arbiter, handles disputes between parties who are negotiating a collective bargaining agreement.

“The $1,000 lump sum was not included in the arbiter award,” Wright said in an email. “DOC is required to carry out the decision of the arbiter.”

Copland, who said he was speaking on behalf of the union, described that as a “very odd interpretation.”

“It wasn’t contentious,” Copland said of the $1,000 payment. “It wasn’t something that we argued over in front of the arbiter, right? Only those things that you don’t agree upon are the things that actually go before the arbiter.”

In an email, Ralph Thomas, a spokesperson for the Office of Financial Management, said the office is “reviewing the concerns” raised by the union.

“But because we anticipate litigation in this matter, we have no further comment at this time,” Thomas said.

The news comes as state government struggles to hire and retain workers.

Copland pointed to the agency’s troubles hiring cooks for DOC facilities. He said some entry-level and support staff at the agency live paycheck to paycheck.

“These are people that were there during COVID and kept coming in, and you know, making those meals and taking care of the folks that are in our care,” Copland said. “And because of that work, because of what they did, the governor and the folks at [the state Office of Financial Management] agreed that they would be given this piece of compensation. And then inexplicably, last week, they were told that’s not going to happen.”

Furchert, the Mount Vernon community corrections officer, said he had intended to save part of the bonus for retirement and use some of it to pay for a couple of projects around the house.

“I’m careful never to spend money that I don’t have in my little hand yet,” he said, ” … But I definitely had plans for it.”