Seattle city employees say low pay, safety contribute to vacancies

11 unions representing almost 6,000 city workers are bargaining for new three-year contracts.

two men in neon yellow jackets paint over graffiti on a wall

Graffiti rangers from the City of Seattle paint over recent graffiti tags under the Dr. Jose P. Rizal Bridge on Tuesday, Dec. 13, 2022. Nearly 6,000 union city employees are currently bargaining for a new contract. (Amanda Snyder/Crosscut)

Persistent worker shortages loom large as the City of Seattle and its employees wrangle over union contract negotiations.

The vacancies can be found all around city departments. There aren’t enough lifeguards to keep every beach and pool open, enough mechanics to maintain the city’s vehicle fleets, enough IT professionals to deal with every employee’s tech problems.

John, a Seattle Parks and Recreation employee who asked not to be identified by his last name for fear of retaliation, said it’s rare that a week goes by that he doesn’t get asked to fill in on extra shifts. He said he’s supposed to be joined by at least one other employee when working in the parks, but often works alone these days. As a result, equipment goes unguarded if he has to step away to attend to something. Other tasks just don’t get finished. John said that on busy weekends sometimes bathrooms don’t get cleaned.

Data obtained by Crosscut through a public records request shows turnover and vacancies in departments across the city between Jan. 1, 2020 and Aug. 17, 2022. Though the data is a year old, it gives a sense of the scale of Seattle’s workforce challenges.

In that time, Seattle Public Utilities had 113 employees retire and 216 terminations, which includes people who either quit or got fired. As of August 2022 the department had 171 vacancies out of 1,485 positions funded in the 2022 budget. At City Light, 169 workers retired in that period and 266 quit or were fired. The department had 287 vacancies in August 2022 out of 1,808 budgeted positions. Parks and Recreation had 72 retirements, 401 terminations and 137 vacancies out of 1,026 positions.

Workers say the turnover and lingering vacancies are rooted in pay and safety, and have made those issues central to ongoing negotiations between the city of Seattle and the unions representing city workers. 

Nearly 6,000 City of Seattle employees in 11 unions are bargaining with the city over their next three-year contracts. Those workers are represented by AFSCME Council 2, Boilermakers Local 104, IAM District 160, IATSE Local 15, IBEW Local 46, LiUNA Local 242, PROTEC17, Seattle Dispatchers Guild, Sheet Metal Workers Local 66, Teamsters 117 and Teamsters 763.

The 11 unions bargain together as the Coalition of City Unions on issues that apply across all city departments, such as pay, vacation time, benefits and return-to-office policies. They bargain separately on job-specific issues, since working conditions for a vehicle mechanic look very different than those for a librarian.  

Not every city union bargains together. For example, the Seattle Police Officers Guild, Seattle Police Management Association and International Association of Fire Fighters Local 27 are on different timelines. 

The Coalition is asking for a 9.2% raise across the board. The Consumer Price Index is a standard measure for cost-of-living increases and decreases. In the Seattle metro area, the index has risen sharply over the past few years. From June 2021 to June 2022 it jumped 10.1%. In that same span from 2022 to 2023 it rose another 4.6%.

Pay has been an impasse for nearly a year of negotiations, with the city holding fast at its offer of a 1% cost of living adjustment. When the city offered that same 1% at the Aug. 2 bargaining session, Coalition members walked out of the room in protest.

At the Aug. 16 session, Mayor Bruce Harrell came in person to talk to the bargaining committee and offer a slightly higher raise. Union representatives would not tell Crosscut Harrell’s exact offer, but said it’s still well below the 9.2% they want.

The unions see it as slight progress, however, after so many months of stalemate. Steven Pray, a representative with professional and technical workers union PROTEC17, said Harrell’s appearance at the bargaining table is the first time in his career he’s seen a municipal executive show up in person for negotiations.

Mayor’s Office spokesperson Jamie Housen said the mayor cannot comment on the specifics of ongoing labor negotiations, but provided a statement: “The mayor continues to express his urgent and good faith commitment to getting a deal done and raising wages for City workers. Despite forecasts showing significant future revenue gaps, our approach will continue to be rooted in our values that every worker deserves a living wage and our gratitude for City employees and the service they provide to Seattle neighbors.”  

City worker wages vary widely. Data from the city shows hourly wage positions start at $18.69 per hour and top out at $61.86, depending on the role.

“You’re struggling just to get by,” said John, the parks department employee. “On paper it sounds like we have a good rate. But what sounds good isn’t the same as being enough to live on in an expensive city.”

Rachael Brooks is an engineer with Seattle City Light and PROTEC17 member who sits on the bargaining committee. She recently moved out of the city to find less expensive housing. She said many of her colleagues are instead leaving for higher wages in the private sector.

“We’re so under-market for engineers across the board, we’re losing people all the time,” said Brooks. “We can’t keep up with work we have to do, let alone keep up with the [climate] innovation the city talks about, like electrification.”

Dominique Ingram is a Seattle Municipal Court administrative specialist and Teamsters 763 member who’s also on the bargaining committee. She’s been working a second job for the past nine months to help make ends meet.

“I’m a dedicated public servant,” said Ingram. “I could look for another job, but I picked up a second job instead. … Their offer [for a 1% raise] makes me feel very undervalued.”

For the past few years, Harrell and other elected officials have been banging the drum about the exodus of police officers from the Seattle Police Department and budgeting for bonuses and hiring campaigns to address it. Last year, the City Council approved $30,000 hiring bonuses for experienced officers joining SPD from other cities and counties.

Asked about the attention paid by city officials to police department vacancies, PROTEC17 rep Pray said, “To me that shows the city recognizes they need to pay employees more if they want to recruit and retain.”

Pay isn’t the only factor for the unions. Workers say safety coming to and from in-person jobs is a factor as well. Ingram said, for example, that she’s been followed walking from her job at the downtown Municipal Court to the light-rail station. For city librarians like Anne Cisney, an AFSCME 2083 member on the bargaining committee, safety has become a central issue given the job’s intersection with Seattle’s homelessness and mental health crises.

Brooks says the shortage of city workers across the board, and not just of police officers, affects public safety. “There are mechanics that service the fire trucks and ambulances and cop cars, people that work in community centers and provide shelter services. … There is a whole group effort by city workers to try and make sure that this city is functioning as safely and wonderfully as we can make it.”

As part of negotiations, the Coalition has proposed establishing a citywide safety committee and that the city provide paid leave for recovery after an incident impacting someone’s safety, both of which Pray said have been rejected so far.

Though bargaining sessions will continue regularly, the unions don’t expect a quick resolution to their current negotiations. City workers are planning to rally outside of City Hall on the afternoon of Sept. 19 in an effort to garner public support.

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