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Whatcom County Government Employees Need Grievance System

Michael Chiavario writes about our county parks department. Michael has lived in Bellingham since 1968. He retired from his job at Whatcom County Parks after 20 years of service in 2015.

Note: On October 4th, a complaint (lawsuit) was served to Whatcom County on behalf of Ben VanBuskirk, a former employee of the Whatcom County Parks Department. Now retired, Ben was a highly respected ranger who worked for Whatcom County for nearly 30 years. Ben was the manager of parks in Point Roberts for many years.

Imagine never being off work. Even when you are at home or on vacation. Twenty-four hours a day. Seven days a week. Year, after year, after year. Your phone rings and, because your boss requires you to always carry and answer your work phone, you leave your family’s Christmas gathering 120 miles from your workplace to make adjustments to equipment. It doesn’t matter that someone else who is much closer to the problem could do the job.

Imagine working at least 50 hours a week for 40 hours pay. And often in those precious hours at home, your phone rings and you have to solve a problem or get into your work truck and head out again. Imagine that in those 50 working hours your workload keeps getting bigger and bigger.

You are a conscientious professional. You want to do the job right. You don’t want to leave things undone. So what you leave undone is your need to take basic care of your health and have some semblance of a family life. You develop heart arrhythmias. You can’t sleep. Your blood pressure is high. Eventually you begin vomiting blood.

This is the point when, even though you are only eight months from having enough time in the job to get your full retirement, you quit. You have to, because if you don’t you are going to die.

At this point the reader might be thinking that this job must be non-union. Or perhaps it’s an undocumented worker situation. Maybe it’s in a conservative right-to-work state. The reader might be surprised to learn that this is a job working for Whatcom County

In fact, several other long-term employees left the same Whatcom County department during the tenure of its current director. Valuable, dedicated, public servants with a wealth of institutional knowledge were lost. When polled by an attorney, nearly all the union employees from that department expressed dissatisfaction with their director. Two employees filed formal complaints.

Employees of that department also watched management shift, from a participatory model where anyone could weigh-in at one of the regular meetings or at any other time on any issue without fear of retribution, to a model where centralized decision making and intimidation by example ruled the atmosphere. Making small waves was tolerated. Making big waves was risky. Staff members watched too many decisions and projects go awry due in part to a lack of participation, or serious consideration, of input by non-administrative employees.

One could conclude that the problem was with the department director. I think the problem is bigger than that. Due to the administrative structure of Whatcom County’s departments and employees, a poor county executive is also a problem. As long as a department head pleases the executive, that department head will remain in his/her job regardless of employee complaints.

Employees have no safe place to go with complaints, there is no board, commission, or legislative body, and they don’t feel safe going to the director. In short, there is no recourse in place between the department head and the executive. The executive holds all the cards in this game.

The fundamental problem here is structural and the solution is to amend the County Charter to provide a safe alternative to employees who have unresolved issues regarding working conditions or operations. The human resources department head serves at the pleasure of the executive, so that option is out as a safe or effective means of recourse. Union officials are either unwilling or unable to take actions that would solve these problems.

The County Council can place an amendment to the Charter on the ballot of a general election. I would like to see that body find a solution to this imbalance of power and craft a Charter amendment that will provide a check on the unchecked executive and director levels of power I have described.

Additionally, a system of 360-degree review of employee performance would go long way to improving morale and supervisory responsibility. Currently, supervisors annually evaluate employees; unfortunately, there is no reciprocal evaluation.

In some departments, employees are reluctant to challenge or criticize their supervisors or directors. This does not serve the taxpayers well. Workers with years of experience are in an excellent position to offer suggestions, evaluation, and criticism to directors who, in some cases, have been in their positions for less time than those they direct. An atmosphere of unfettered, open participation in workplace decisions can result in better decisions and prevent mistakes. Whatcom County citizens will be better served when the voices of dedicated employees in all departments are heard and their labor rights respected.

About Michael Chiavario

Contributor • Member since Feb 08, 2009

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