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They’ve been without a contract for 8 months. Benton jail workers say their safety is at risk

Benton County Corrections Officers have been without a contract since Dec. 31.  The union representing about 90 workers called on the county to tap the multi-million-dollar Public Safety Sales Tax reserve to address worker safety issues.
Benton County Corrections Officers have been without a contract since Dec. 31. The union representing about 90 workers called on the county to tap the multi-million-dollar Public Safety Sales Tax reserve to address worker safety issues. Tri-City Herald

The union representing 90 Benton County Corrections Officers wants the Benton County Commission to tap its Public Safety Sales Tax reserve to address worker safety at the county jail.

Teamsters Local Union No. 839 said a year of negotiations and six mediation sessions with the Public Employees Relation Commission has failed to yield a contract.

Jail workers have been without a contract since Dec. 31. The dispute will go to binding arbitration if the mediator certifies the dispute.

Russell Shjerven, secretary/treasurer of Local 839, said the bargaining unit is ready to take that step.

Shjerven said the union was seeking a one-year extension of its contract to give county commissioners time to assess if the jail should remain part of the sheriff’s office, or if it should become its own independent department. It also sought 3.5 percent pay increases for workers.

Shjerven said the county agreed to 2.5 percent pay increases but reduced health insurance contributions. Too, it wanted a two- to four-year contract. The union doesn’t want a long-term contract until it knows who will be running the jail: sheriff or an undetermined administrator.

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A Benton County Sheriff corrections officer monitors computer and video screens in the master control room near the booking area of the Benton County jail facility in Kennewick. As contract negotiations falter, Benton County jail deputies look to the public safety sales tax reserve to address safety issues. File Tri-City Herald

The county did not have a comment on the status of negotiations.

The union wants Benton County to use money generated by the voter-approved Public Safety Sales Tax to address what it calls worker safety and overtime issues at the 740-bed jail.

The reserve stood at about $11 million in July, down from the nearly $16 million balance recorded earlier this year.

“With the commissioners controlling so many unused funds reserved for public safety, there is no excuse for corrections officers to be facing major issues of worker safety and forced overtime,” it said.

Benton County has been under pressure to spend the money since it emerged that the voter-approved sales tax generates more money than the county can spend.

Washington law allows counties to ask for up to three-tenths of a percent sales tax to support public safety initiatives. The money is split with local cities, who receive 40 percent of the total.

The county received more than than $36 million in requests from local school districts, county departments and nonprofits to pay for a wide range of programs that fit loosely under the “public safety” banner.

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A Benton County Sheriff corrections officer inspects an empty pod at the Benton County Jail in Kennewick. Jail workers have been without a contract since Dec. 31. File Tri-City Herald

It is not clear which if any will be honored.

The Teamsters emphasized that voters agreed to raise the sales tax to support public safety by attaching a summary of the requests to a press release. It also noted that the jail has generated about $10 million in fees for lodging prisoners on behalf of the state and federal governments.

“Why can’t we get any of that money,” Shjerven asked.

Benton County Sheriff Jerry Hatcher, who is not participating in the negotiations, disagreed with the union’s complaint that the jail is understaffed and poorly maintained.

“There is no shortage of officers. We are staffed adequately. We pay overtime. The jail never has safety issues because of that,” he said. “That is misleading.”

Hatcher said management retains the right to set staffing levels under the collective bargaining agreement.

Franklin County corrections officers are not represented by the Teamsters and their contract is not currently open.

Wendy Culverwell: 509-582-1514
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