Ruling pours cold water on jail employees’ free hot meals

The state Public Employment Relations Commission reversed an earlier ruling for union members.

EVERETT — The hot breakfast special at the Snohomish County Jail can come off the menu.

A state commission that oversees disputes involving public employees has overturned a ruling that required the sheriff’s office to feed corrections officers fresh-cooked fare during early morning shifts. Instead, union employees are welcome to the same cold sack meals that inmates get — gratis.

“The past practice is that the employer provided the employees with the same meal that was provided to inmates,” three commissioners wrote in a June 15 decision. “The past practice is not, as the union contends, providing the employees with a hot meal.”

The food fight stems from a decision that county officials made in 2016.

To cut costs, jail administrators opted to stop having hot meals prepared for the 850 or so inmates who wake up each day at the county lockup in downtown Everett. Serving a sack lunch that can be fixed the night before reduced prep time and costs.

The hot-meal issue was among a dozen complaints the Snohomish County Corrections Guild brought to an examiner with the state Public Employment Relations Commission, or PERC. The guild represents more than 200 corrections employees.

Calls and emails to the guild president were not returned last week.

The county’s labor contract with the union provides corrections officers with the same food as inmates, for free, during their shifts. It specifies that they get “the meal provided to confined jail inmates for each day the employee is on duty and remains within the jail facilities during the meal period.”

In January, PERC examiner Stephen Irvin ruled that the change to cold meals violated labor law. He ordered the county to “cease and desist from unlawfully implementing changes to meals provided.” The county should have given the guild notice about the change and the opportunity to bargain, the examiner wrote.

To comply, the jail began putting out a free pot of oatmeal every morning for employees to fill up. That was in addition to a sack-lunch-style meal they offered with items such as fruit and breakfast bars.

“To be honest, we’re not missing much oatmeal every day,” corrections Bureau Chief Tony Aston said.

Both sides appealed aspects of the earlier decision to PERC. In last month’s decision, commissioners largely sided with the county. Other points in dispute included issues such as staffing, a requirement to help with blood draws and holiday meals.

Though no longer required, Aston said the jail will continue to provide the oatmeal. For now, at least.

Costs associated with the food changes weren’t immediately available.

Noah Haglund: 425-339-3465; nhaglund@herald Twitter: @NWhaglund.

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