Ex-city workers struggle to cope
February 3, 2011 · Updated 3:35 PM
Angry words and union threats don’t help pay the bills.
And being told that losing your paycheck was an unfortunate side effect of the recession doesn’t feel like a sincere goodbye either.
As the eight former Bainbridge Island city employees joined the ranks of the unemployed last December, they are still trying to pick up the pieces while the city and union continue to lock horns over the reorganization and subsequent layoffs of city staff.
The International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers (IAMAW) filed a grievance on Jan. 12 on behalf of more than 30 current and former city union-member employees. Eight of those employees lost their jobs as a result of the reorganization.
In a response issued Tuesday, Interim City Manager Brenda Bauer rejected the union’s grievance.
Bauer said the city needed to address the dramatic reduction in overall employment through reorganizing staff positions, and throughout the process the city bargained in good faith with the union and followed contract stipulations.
On the other hand, IAMAW Associate Business Director Mike Goddard said he plans to file an unfair labor practice and may pursue litigation.
But that doesn’t do much to soothe the pain or answer questions for those who are now unemployed and reeling from the city’s tough choices.
Engineer Dave Nelson wasn’t worried when he first heard of Bauer’s reorganization plans. He’d been at the city from the start, 19 years to be exact, and figured his experience would speak for itself. He was told his job classification would be eliminated, and he would need to reapply for a job. He still didn’t feel the need to be too concerned.
Nelson applied and interviewed for four jobs. The interviews went well, he thought, all smiles and smooth questions and answers.
“But without rhyme or reason I was rejected four times,” said Nelson. “Positions I am totally qualified for, they turned me down. And they couldn’t even give me one reason why I didn’t get the job.”
On Dec. 21, the 63-year-old Nelson showed up for work. City Hall was quiet, but he didn’t really notice. A few minutes later he was called to the executive department’s conference room where he was handed a slip and asked to leave.
Nelson isn’t alone in having more than a decade of city experience end abruptly with just a couple minutes to grab belongings before being escorted out the door. Nelson said he worked with many of those who lost their jobs for well over ten years.
“I don’t feel in my heart that this was right,” said Nelson. “We didn’t even get to say goodbye. It was cold, and we were told we couldn’t come back unless we had an appointment. And that was it.”
Municipalities around the country are faced with the tragic reality of layoffs and budget cuts with a city hall unable to pay the bills. Many islanders have criticized the city for growing too large in years past, and have since applauded Bauer for her expertise in whittling down staff and reorganizing a defunct and financially plagued organization.
But for those who lost their jobs, after years of service, it’s hard to find a way to justify the callous response and seeming disregard for their seniority in public service positions.
Nelson said he loved his job at the city. He said he got along well with staff, and he’d watched leadership change hands countless times over his tenure. He planned to continue working for only 24 to 36 months before retiring, and is currently trying to finish building a home in Seabeck with his wife, a bank teller in Poulsbo.
Now, he worries if he can pay the bills.
“We were blindsided,” said Nelson. “Emotionally, the impact has hit some people really hard. I’m sure it has hit me, but I seem to have buried it somewhere deep inside.”
Nelson said he’ll try to find work, and isn’t sure he would want to go back to the city after how he was treated. He said he is managing the pain better than some who maybe aren’t as close to retirement and still have kids to feed. He hasn’t found too much solace from the union’s grievance, which hasn’t elicited any answers from the city.
“I hope they can do something, but if they don’t get off their dime and quit playing with words then nothing will happen,” said Nelson.
In Bauer’s response to the union’s grievance, she counters every violation listed, article by article.
One of the complaints listed by the union was that the city laid-off employes and then rehired them into new positions with a new seniority date. Bauer said that’s false, adding that the employees hired into new positions on Jan. 1, 2011, have the same “overall” seniority date, which would be recognized by the city.
Bauer also states that seniority was considered during the hiring process, which limited the pool of applicants to current COBI employees. She further stipulated that the layoffs occurred by order of seniority within the affected classifications. Bauer met with city employee and union steward Paul Miller as early as September to go over the reorganization plans in great detail, including a list of affected employees.
The city and union are still in negotiations regarding wage rates for the new classifications, a process Bauer hoped would be finished by the end of 2010.
Bauer explained that the city was structured for 152 people and when staff was slashed down to some 111 full-time equivalent employees, the structure no longer made sense. Bauer developed a new structure with new job classifications and duties to realign and improve city efficiencies.
And with very few Bainbridge employees with low seniority, it was inevitable, Bauer said, that employees with years of experience would lose their jobs.
“I’m not going to pick someone because they did some of the tasks, have high seniority but aren’t the best person for the job,” said Bauer. “I have to have people who really match the work that needs to get done.”
Bauer said all positions except for one were internally filled.
“This is the reality of the financial times we are in,” said Bauer. “To suggest we are doing anything different from any other organization (or) municipality is wrong.”