Negotiation over library wages stalls

Union leader: Employees 'exhausted from not being able to pay their bills'

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Fort Vancouver Regional Library employees participate in a rally at Vancouver Community Library on July 29. (Contributed photos courtesy of Dana Hoffman)

Fort Vancouver Regional Library (FVRL) and the Washington Public Employees Association (WPEA) bargaining unit that represents 163 FVRL non-management staff members are at an impasse in their wage negotiations, which began 15 months ago.

Negotiations stalled after the WPEA filed a grievance in February against FVRL for failing to honor contract language. The WPEA also plans to file unfair labor practice charges with the National Labor Relations Board, which will conduct an arbitration hearing.

The two sides are currently in mediation. They met July 2 and are planning another meeting for Aug. 20.

FVRL executive Amelia Shelley said FVRL is “ready and willing to come back to the bargaining table” and that the agency “wants to do right by the employees.”

“This has been difficult,” Shelley said. “We don’t want to be in this situation. We want to have a good relationship with our employees. I’d say we’re doing the best we can. Being a good employer is important to us. We also have a responsibility to the taxpayers. Whatever we do must be sustainable for the district in the long term, and that’s important to the employees as well.”

Two of the four employees at the Washougal Community Library, a FVRL member, are represented by the WPEA.

According to the labor union, FVRL paid nearly $25,000 to conduct a market study, completed in March 2018, that shows that FVRL’s non-management staff members are paid significantly less than their counterparts at other libraries in Southwest Washington, “but is refusing to adjust wages based on it.”

“We know and they know that the staff is underpaid. They have acknowledged that they don’t have a problem paying less; they’ve said that to our faces,” said WPEA staff representative Dana Hoffman. “At this point we’re not nattering about money. We’re just trying to have a conversation, and they’re refusing to engage.”

“FVRL seems not to care one whit,” Hoffman continued. “Amelia blogs for district members, and she regularly makes references to the negotiations and says that FVRL is committed to paying a living wage. It’s unbelievable that this woman has the gall to pontificate about fair wages, then turn around and say, ‘No, no, no,’ over and over again when it comes to funding the wages. Her actions do not match her words.”

FVRL human resources director Lee Strehlow said the labor union’s latest formal proposal included a 3.5-percent increase to salaries.

“We have a classification system which lays out how positions are aligned to each other within the compensation plan,” she said. “The union wants to take that classification system and realign it based on the study. One of their proposals would cost us $682,000 annually to implement. Monetarily, we don’t have that. We’re trying to reach the average midpoint of the pay grades.”

Strehlow said FVRL awarded non-management staff members a 4-percent salary increase on Jan. 1, 2018.

“We knew we were behind and (wanted) to get caught up,” she said. “We’re not ahead on the market (with our wages). We’re a bit below the midpoint. We want to be a bit higher, but we’re not able to pay above-market. We’re bargaining to reach the midpoint, and that’s 9 percent. For some classes, the union is asking for an 18-percent increase.”

Hoffman said that the current contract between the WPEA and FVRL, which began Jan. 1, 2017 and will end Dec. 31, 2019, states that, as of Jan. 1, 2019, employee wages will be adjusted based on the market study and other considerations.

The study concluded that the FVRL’s non-management staff members are paid between 4 and 25 percent less compared to their colleagues in other areas of the state, according to Hoffman.

“The agency agreed to establish new pay ranges based on the market study, but it has refused to acknowledge the data even though it obligated itself to do so,” Hoffman said. “We asked them in negotiations if they intend to use the data in the study like they said they would. They said, ‘No, we aren’t.’ Why? Well, that’s the $64,0000 question. I pointedly asked (FVRL staff members) that more than once, and the answer has never been far from, ‘We can’t afford it.'”

Hoffmman believes FVRL can afford wage increases, however, and claims the library district is choosing to use the money to instead pay for new library construction in Washougal, La Center and Woodland.

“FVRL is one of the richest public agencies in the state from an operational reserve standpoint,” she said. “At the beginning of this year they had a 70 percent operational reserve. Once or twice per quarter, FVRL will move funds out of any line item it can into reserves to buy real estate. It’s quite clear that all the Board cares about is real estate. Their meetings sound like real estate conventions. They have no shame in this matter.”

Strehlow, however, said FVRL’s “generous benefits package” should be given more consideration by the WPEA as a key factor in negotiations.

“The union doesn’t agree that benefits should factor into what we pay people. That’s an area of challenge for us right now,” she said. “We think we have very affordable medical, dental, long-term and short-term (insurance). We look at the study, but we also look at other considerations. Are we having high employee turnover? Do we have recruiting challenges? Are we providing employees with things in other areas that we think augment the wages?”

Now the union is hoping to get the issue in front of the public. Union members rallied on July 29 at the FVRL operations center in Vancouver and the Vancouver Community Library. And Hoffman said WPEA members will soon hold similar rallies at larger locations as well as “informational pickets” at smaller sites such as the Washougal Community Library.

Starting this week, Washougal Community Library employees will hand out flyers that “educate people and ask them to pledge their support,” Hoffman said.

“The employees are brutally aware that stepping into the public eye like this runs the risk of damaging public opinion of the library,” she said. “Nobody likes it, but this is the only way to get the agency’s attention.”

“The employees are so tired of being the agency’s way of getting out of the red, and they’re exhausted from not being able to pay their bills,” Hoffman continued. “There are staff members that live in their cars because they can’t get apartments. A double-digit percentage of the employees are on public assistance because they qualify for it.”