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CenCom labor dispute continues

The Kitsap County 911 Employee’s Guild, a newly established union specifically for CenCom’s emergency dispatchers, has taken its cause to the people.

Representatives of the 50-member aggregation appeared before the Kitsap County Board of Commissioners this week, sponsored a newspaper letter-writing campaign, to spread the word on a grassroots level.

This was followed by a press release from the Guild stating, “...contract

negotiations between the union representing emergency communications employees and Kitsap County have broken down.”

The situation is coming to a head at what should be a high point for the agency.

A new $10 million facility is now open, with dispatchers due to move in by March. This will relieve cramped conditions and provide the staff an environment commensurate with its responsibilities.

While labor claims to be losing faith in the process, management seems a little more optimistic.

“This has been a huge, painful bump in the road,” said CenCom deputy director Dave Mangnenat. “But our foundation is still very solid. I know we will get through this.”

“Employees have not received a raise since January 1999.” said Guild president Lisa Thorsen. “They have not been granted any cost of living wage adjustments, and our employees are now significantly behind in as compared to other similar dispatch agencies in the Puget Sound region.”

Thorsen point out that other county employees have received regular salary increases and cost of living adjustments, and asks that CenCom employees achieve parity.

Many CenCom employees are living close to the edge, she said, a situation further aggravated by a significant raise in insurance premiums. This places financial pressure at the worst possible time.

“This Christmas is really going to suck,” said dispatcher Laura McGreevy.

The CenCom dispatch staff is, by most accounts, one of the best in the region. Training and abilities aside, the workers seem to like each other and work as a well-oiled team. There is none of the backbiting and competitiveness that can thrive in other high-stress environments.

“We’ve had people leave here for a job with more pay and then come back

because this is a better place to work,” said dispatcher Amanda Warrior.

“We’re the right size and we all really like each other.”

McGreevy recalled, “When I first came here, I knew I was home.”

McGreevy says she could commute to Tacoma and make twice the salary, but wouldn’t consider it.

“I love this county,” she said. “Some people need to work at Applebee’s. I need to work here. I couldn’t be a cop or a lawyer. This is where I fit in. It’s where I can help my community.”

Nevertheless, McGreevy estimates “half of the staff is now openly looking for other jobs.”

Such a mass exodus would force the county to invest in a significant amount of training and overtime costs. And since CenCom employees teach each other, experienced trainers are especially valuable.

“Not only are we losing bodies, we’re losing the people who can make new dispatchers,” McGreevy said. “If they leave, who’s going to train the new people?”

While both labor and management regret that it’s been five years since the

last raise — even for cost of living — much of the delay has been unavoidable.

In 1999, CenCom employees felt ill-served by their own union and set out to

create their own guild. This took three years, during which time a new contract could not be negotiated.

The new union was approved in October 2003, but it took until this March to get the negotiations started.

These are undisputed facts. Up for interpretation is which side — labor or management — has slowed the process with a recent lack of cooperation.

Management declines to specifically comment about the Guild’s charges, saying “We don’t want to try our case in the media.”

While staying away from specifics, CenCom director Ron McAffee believes the Guild is looking to get the best deal for its membership, while management wants to provide this, but “not give away the farm.”

At the county commissioner meeting, several dispatchers gave both prepared and extemporaneous statements about their situation.

The board listened sympathetically, but Central Kitsap Commissioner Patty Lent told the group the commissioners could neither act on nor comment about a matter in arbitration.

“We all want to get this settled,” McAffee said. “Over the last five years, things have been going well. We have some problems and frustrations but we’ve been successful in achieving some great and wonderful things. Our people are dedicated and good at what they do. Pretty soon this conflict will be a thing of the past.”

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