Several corrections officers testified at a Senate hearing on a bill that would let them negotiate on staffing levels and other safety issues in future contracts and seek binding arbitration to resolve any disputes with the state.
"We're looking for the opportunity to have a voice," Sgt. Mark Francis of Larch Corrections Center told the Senate Labor and Commerce Committee.
For months, corrections officers have sought this change. Their efforts had stalled in the Legislature until the murder of Jayme Biendl at Monroe Correctional Complex ignited renewed attention to their request.
On March 5, state Reps. Mike Sells, D-Everett, and Kirk Pearson, R-Monroe, introduced House Bill 2011. Two days later it passed the House on a 59-36 vote. If it makes it through the Legislature and is signed into law, it would go into effect July 1, 2013.
"This bill is an attempt to give them a much stronger voice in protecting their own safety," Sells told the Senate panel. "I think that's the least we can do especially with the circumstances that have gone on in our institutions in recent times."
Budget writers in the Legislature and the governor's office are worried that if the bill becomes law it could lead to much more costly labor contracts in the future.
Marty Brown, director of the Office of Financial Management, wrote committee leaders Monday to express his concerns that the bill requires the state bargain on items "that are currently within management's authority, including staffing levels, employee training and equipment, and job assignments."
He wrote that interest arbitration "tends to reduce the incentive to reach agreement" and if there is no agreement then the two sides must comply with the award of an interest arbitrator.
"Many of these items could have significant budget implications," he said.
While Republican senators on the committee raised the fiscal concern, Democratic senators said the bill is needed because the present collective bargaining process is not allowing workers enough input to affect decisions involving their safety.
Sells argued that inaction will send a message to corrections officers that lawmakers aren't willing to do all they can to protect their lives.
"I have a concern that we just don't do something like advisory committees and then pass it off and put it in the closet," he said. "I want the workers in those Department of Corrections institutions to have a real say and a real voice for change."
Jerry Cornfield: 360-352-8623; email@example.com
On the Net
To read HB 2011, go to www.leg.wa.gov
The senate's report on the bill can be found here: http://tinyurl.com/correctionsemployeessafetybill.
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