OLYMPIA — A union representing about 47,000 state workers on Friday announced it reached a deal with Washington officials to use unpaid furloughs to reduce costs during the coronavirus pandemic, while preserving a scheduled 3% raise for union workers and limiting job losses.
The tentative agreement between the Washington Federation of State Employees (WFSE) and the state Office of Financial Management is described as a “memorandum of understanding.”
The deal sets a schedule for furloughs announced earlier this week by Gov. Jay Inslee as state officials grapple with a steep economic downturn in the wake of the new coronavirus.
“As a union, we successfully preserved the 3% raises provided under our current contract,” WFSE wrote in a Friday morning post on their website.
“To prevent job loss, we secured this memorandum of understanding (MOU) to introduce limited furloughs,” the website post said. “While not ideal, furloughs will reduce job loss, help members maintain vital health insurance during the pandemic, and limit impacts on retirement.”
While those things aren’t guaranteed in the agreement, Mike Yestramski of WFSE said in an interview he believes the memorandum would avoid layoffs, or impacts to health care or retirement.
“By agreeing to the limited furloughs now, we believe that will decrease the likelihood of permanent job losses or layoffs in the future,” said Yestramski, president of the union that represents roughly 47,000 workers.
Union members are scheduled to vote on the agreement Friday, he said.
Under the deal, the union’s website said furloughed workers would potentially see a net increase in pay, because they could be eligible for unemployment insurance and potentially federal assistance.
The details released Friday by the union shed light on the furloughs announced Wednesday by Inslee.
The governor announced the furloughs in a news conference that focused on Washington’s $8.8 billion state budget shortfall projected through 2023.
The agreement means more than 40,000 state workers will start to take unpaid furlough days no later than June 28. Affected workers have to take one unpaid day each week through then and July 25.
Then, state employees will take one unpaid day per month between Aug. 1 and Nov. 30.
In his remarks Wednesday, Inslee didn’t reveal the talks between the state and WFSE. He described the furloughs as a necessary — and real — economic hit to workers.
The furloughs mean “people are going to have less, but it is a better way to do it to deal with what we hope is not a permanent economic downturn,” Inslee said.
When asked during the news conference if he might move to reopen the current state-worker contracts to reduce costs further, Inslee said he wasn’t sure he was legally able to, but he hadn’t ruled it out.
“Look, there’s going to be a lot of hard decisions we make, I can’t rule that out,” Inslee said.
Some Republicans have urged Inslee to save even more state dollars by reopening the union contract and eliminating the 3% raise.
“It’s a politically difficult thing for them, it’s not a politically easy thing for my side of the aisle, either,” Sen. John Braun, R-Centralia, said earlier this month.
But with hundreds of thousands of Washingtonians out of work, letting the state worker raises take effect “just isn’t the right decision,” said Braun, the Senate GOP’s chief budget writer.
Braun and other Republicans have argued that making more cuts now — especially on the raises and other brand-new spending — will make it easier to preserve existing social service spending during the downturn.
“While not saying it’s an easy decision, it’s by far the easiest decision we have to make in the next six to nine months,” said Braun.
Talks between the state and the union occurred over the past month or so as the economic portrait darkened amid the COVID-19 outbreak, according to David Schumacher, director of the Office of Financial Management (OFM).
Schumacher on Friday described the move as “really only the first cut that we’ve made.”
The agreement’s current furlough schedule runs through December. But since the union contract runs through the end of June 2021, those furloughs could be extended, Schumacher said.
According to the deal, if more furlough days are required, “the state shall provide notice of its intent to do so and will satisfy its bargaining obligations.”
Schumacher said he appreciated the union’s efforts to save money and said he hoped layoffs won’t be necessary. But if budget projections grow worse or the federal government doesn’t provide any economic assistance to cope with the downturn, “there’s no promises for all time,” he said.
In addition to the furloughs, Inslee Wednesday announced he was canceling pay raises for roughly 5,600 non-union, higher-paid state workers.
Those moves combined are expected to save $55 million across the next year. The governor in April vetoed some new spending to also reduce budget costs.
In May, Inslee implemented a freeze on most state hiring and personal-service contracts.
The governor and lawmakers are grappling with a steep budget shortfall, which they will likely start to address during a special legislative session sometime in the coming months.
Lawmakers and the next governor — be it Inslee or a challenger chosen by voters in the August primary and November general election — will regroup in January during the Legislature’s scheduled session to write a new two-year state operating budget amid the pandemic.
Meanwhile, OFM and the state’s public-employee unions — which are also supporters of Inslee and some of the biggest donors to Democrats in state politics — will soon begin negotiations over the 2021-23 worker contracts.