Exodus at state liquor stores

OLYMPIA — As Washington prepares to transfer liquor sales from public to private stores, some state employees are making their transition ahead of a June 1 deadline.

The early exodus could force some state stores to close ahead of schedule, but the Washington State Liquor Control Board is hiring temporary workers to try to keep all its 166 locations open, The News Tribune reported.

Voters decided in November to privatize the state’s liquor sales and distribution system. The liquor board estimates that more than 900 of its employees will lose their jobs.

Between Jan. 1 and mid-March, about 75 employees left the agency, with about 10 workers leaving each week, said Clarice Nnanabu, human resources director for the Liquor Control Board.

Some are leaving to take similar jobs for private companies.

Steve Burnell gave up his marketing position with the liquor board to take a job with a private distributor in February.

“Rather than wait it out, I wanted to move over to a new position,” Burnell said.

The Liquor Control Board said it’s becoming more difficult to find temporary workers to fill the gaps as workers leave.

“They find out it’s six or seven weeks, and they’re not interested,” Nnanabu said. “We’re not getting people who are willing to work for that short of time without benefits.”

Some former employees have come out of retirement to help in the interim, she said.

Liquor board spokesman Brian Smith said the agency discussed consolidating stores at a meeting last week, but specific locations have not yet been identified. He said he wasn’t sure when that information would be made public, but employees at consolidated stores would be transferred to others.

Some stores could close by the end of the month, Smith said, adding that consolidating stores has been the contingency plan all along if staffing becomes a problem.

Former state liquor workers are finding new jobs in the private sector and at other state agencies. Costco, which contributed more than $22 million to the initiative to create private liquor sales, is one of the companies interviewing state liquor employees.

“There are certainly quite a few folks who are staying, and quite a few folks who are going,” said Tom Geiger, spokesman for the union that represents more than 700 state liquor store employees.

Geiger said the unknown is what will happen when hundreds more lose their jobs later this spring.

Others said previous experience and outside training will help make the transition.

Katherine Beatty worked as a clerk at the downtown Olympia liquor store for more than two years before she went to work as an office assistant with the Department of Labor and Industries in February.

She said her prior office experience with other state agencies — the Washington State Traffic Safety Commission and Department of Social and Health Services — helped her get the new job.

“It’s just really defeating for some of these people to have put in 15 years of service and not be able to find any other state employment,” Beatty said. “It was a lot more extensive than just showing people where the vodka was.”

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