SHORELINE — They wore matching t-shirts, waved signs and shouted “no staff layoffs,” but the clincher was that some even took the day off work.
Union members and other advocates for Fircrest School put up picket lines Thursday, Aug. 25 outside the main entrance to Fircrest School for the developmentally disabled, on the corner of NE 155th Street and 15th Avenue NE.
Union members are upset, they say, because Gov. Christine Gregoire intended $3.7 million in budget cuts to be aimed at trimming management positions, not front-line service jobs. The protest was sponsored by the Washington Federation of State Employees/AFSCME and its Fircrest affiliate, Local 341, which has about 715 members.
“I was told I would have two years of income coming in, then, bam, I get this,” said Fircrest employee and union member Kevin Hamel. “I believe they will try to find me something, but there is no guarantee.”
Hamel, a Shoreline resident, attended the protest on his day off after receiving notice that his position is being cut. He is currently employed as an attendant counselor, a temporary assignment.
If he is placed into a lower-paying position, however, he will have to file bankruptcy, which will affect his wife and two children. Hamel has worked for the state for 16 years, but had a break in service to care for a family member, during which he lost seniority.
The state Department of Social and Health Services (DSHS) is planning to cut $3.7 million from the budget for all five state institutions, with about $2 million coming from Fircrest. Fircrest is slated for the most cost-saving measures of the five institutions because of a decreased population the last few years, DSHS officials say.
To save money, 28 staff positions are slated to be cut at Fircrest School and one cottage will be closed. Residents will be relocated to other units at Fircrest, however, rather than being transferred to other state institutions.
While Fircrest proponents say this is the latest step in downsizing the institution and union members are concerned about job loss, DSHS officials say they are carrying out legislative direction to reduce costs at the five state institutions.
“The staff has every right to demonstrate,” said Marybeth Poch, regional administrator for the Division of Developmental Disabilities. “They have been notified and told their jobs are at risk and we have to implement our reductions by Oct. 1 in order to meet the budget restrictions.”
Five mid-management positions are being cut at other state institutions, Poch said.
Poch said of 1,000 mid-management cuts throughout state government, 330 will come from within DSHS. When assessing the staff reduction at Fircrest, she said people who are being cut are the hands-on caregivers who assist people with developmental disabilities. There are no mid-management cuts at Fircrest because during the past four years, there have been cuts and mid-management is “very lean,” she said.
“The richest staffing is the hands-on care that has to be available for three shifts a day,” Poch said.
Claude Burfect, president of Local 341, said he expected about 300 union members to gather throughout the day to protest and take turns calling the governor’s office.
“We are setting the stage for statewide job actions,” Burfect said. “We are the first to start the job action.”
Union members are upset, Burfect said, because no management positions are being cut at Fircrest School while a total of 43 other staff positions are being eliminated.
“When they (employees) don’t see any management cuts they become disgruntled,” Burfect said. “These are people who have to feed families.”
Burfect hopes officials in Olympia will consider cutting management positions and not target employees who work directly with Fircrest School residents. He also hopes new clients will eventually be admitted to the school, to ensure that staff can retain their jobs.
“They are so intent in Olympia to close Fircrest even though the Legislature has indicated we will be open through 2007,” Burfect said.
Adrienne Fraley-Monillas, a manager at Fircrest, has worked at the institution for 28 years. Although her position is not threatened, she worries about fellow employees and clients. She said nurses, case managers, day program people, dietary aides and housekeepers are losing their jobs.
“I used my annual leave today, which is a great use, this is an important cause,” Fraley-Monillas said.
She said her objection is that the governor supposedly put a stop to downsizing the school and even ordered a study to assess how developmentally disabled people throughout the state are best served.
“But now they are saying because of budgetary reasons, Fircrest is to take $2.5 million of the deficit.” Fraley-Monillas said. “I see this specifically as another way for DSHS to close us down.”
She estimated the salary of employees being cut was roughly $1,500 a month, or about $18,000 annually.
The budget cuts will not affect funding for an advisory council to assess the needs of developmentally disabled state residents that was created with the adoption of the state’s 2005-07 budget, Gregoire’s staff said.
Beginning in 2003, four cottages at Fircrest School were closed and the resident population decreased from 250 residents to 194 after residents were moved to other state institutions, community housing or nursing facilities.
The five state institutions are Rainier School in Buckley, Fircrest School in Shoreline, Lakeland Village in Medical Lake, Yakima Valley School in Selah and Frances Haddon Morgan School in Bremerton.