Unionized county jail workers must be served hot meals

A ruling last month found officials violated labor laws when they stopped serving free, warm breakfasts.

EVERETT — Corrections deputies at the Snohomish County Jail not only have a contractual right to a free breakfast at public expense, a new state ruling says they can insist it be served up hot.

An examiner with the state Public Employment Relations Commission late last month ruled that county officials violated labor laws in May 2016 when they stopped serving free, warm breakfasts to union correction workers at the jail.

Instead, they’ve offered — for free — bagged meals containing such fare as breakfast bars, pastries and fruit. Those breakfasts are the same provided to jail detainees.

The county’s labor contract with unionized jail workers specifies that they will be offered “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.”

The change to bagged breakfasts came when the county opted to cut costs by no longer preparing hot morning meals for the roughly 900 men and women who are locked up at the jail each day.

“Providing a cold, sack meal allowed kitchen staff to prepare the breakfast meal the previous day instead of cooking breakfast beginning at 4 a.m., which was the practice prior to the change,” hearing examiner Stephen Irwin wrote.

At a series of hearings over the summer, Irwin heard testimony from jail officials that the change led to reduced labor costs and fewer delays serving the morning meal.

The Snohomish County Corrections Guild, which represents jail deputies, said it should have received notice regarding the move and demanded the county engage in bargaining.

Before the change, jail breakfasts included one or more hot item each day, the examiner found. “During a one-week period, for example, the menu included hot cereal, biscuits and gravy, pancakes, breakfast sausage, hash brown potatoes and cottage fries. The record demonstrates that while some jail employees who worked graveyard shift chose to eat the prepared meal, others chose to bring or purchase their food.”

The guild had suggested the county instead offer corrections deputies a different prepackaged meal that detainees receive once a week. The county declined, saying the contract is clear about corrections deputies receiving the same meal as inmates.

Corrections Bureau Chief Tony Aston said he’s not sure what financial effect the ruling will have, as options for meeting compliance still are being studied. His staff this week was “researching to find out where we have to be,” he said.

In the interim, he’s directed that a pot of hot oatmeal be made available to any corrections deputies who want a free, hot dish along with the bagged breakfast.

The dispute over food was one of a dozen complaints the corrections guild pressed before the state examiner. The other issues were related to day-to-day operations behind bars, including staffing levels in some areas, job bidding rules, equipment complaints and requiring deputies to stand by when inmates submit to urine testing and blood draws. The guild prevailed on just one other issue. The examiner ruled the county should have bargained with the guild when it assigned maintenance workers and others to supervise inmate work crews.

One of the guild complaints rejected by the hearing examiner also dealt with jail food. Some corrections deputies complained when they were not served free, hot holiday-style meals while working Thanksgiving and Christmas shifts.

The hot holiday meals were provided by the company that contracts to run food service at the jail, the hearing examiner found. Company officials opted to end the practice in 2016 after determining there wasn’t enough money in their budget.

The company’s contract is clear that it is not an agent of the county, and that it “has the right to direct and control its activities in providing meal services,” the examiner wrote. The holiday meal decision was not a violation of state labor laws, Irwin ruled.

A phone call and email to the guild seeking comment were not immediately returned.

Scott North: 425-339-3431; north@heraldnet.com. Twitter: @snorthnews.

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