After 5 years, jail deputies get contract with wage hikes

Under the new contract, the corrections deputies will receive retroactive wage increases.

Corrections deputies who work in the Island County jail have a contract for the first time in five years, but the resolution wasn’t without controversy.

Negotiations between the county’s team and the guild resulted in binding arbitration last year. The arbitrator awarded the corrections deputies significant retroactive wages increases, though not as much as the guild had requested.

Under the new contract, the corrections deputies will receive a 2.75% wage increase for each year from 2017 to 2020, 3.25% in 2021 and 4% this year. The retroactive wage increases were awarded to both current and former staff members.

The increases are based on wages in comparable jails and cost of living adjustments.

Island County commissioners’ discussions about the outcome led the guild’s attorney, James Cline, to write a stern letter to the board alleging that the commissioners weren’t fully informed about the background of the negotiations, that the county is “vastly underspending” on jail operations and that the jail is unsafe because of a lack of staffing.

“Ultimately the Arbitrator adopted a wage award very close to the Guild’s compromise proposal offered years earlier,” the letter states. “This arbitration was entirely unnecessary had the County properly considered its own comparable salary data.”

Commissioners adopted the new contract this week but emphasized that the corrections deputies are receiving better pay increases than other employees, which they hoped wouldn’t cause heartburn among other staff members.

Commissioner Jill Johnson said she found fault with an arbitration process that creates “favoritism,” not with the work of corrections deputies. She said the level of wage increase is not sustainable.

“This is not the board of county commissioners saying this group is more special than others,” she said. “This is the state of Washington regulations and laws that allow certain groups to use binding arbitration and then obligate us to accept contract terms that we would not agree to with other unions.”

Island County Sheriff Rick Felici also reacted to the letter, saying that claims made about the safety of the jail are absolutely false. While the jail is part of his office, he wasn’t involved in the contract negotiations.

“We do not have an unsafe jail,” he said. “In fact, I would say we have one of the safest jails in the state.”

Cline’s letter references the death of inmate Keaton Farris in 2015. The 25-year-old man died from dehydration and malnutrition in the jail after his water was shut off and jailers failed to do routine checks on him. Two corrections deputies were charged with falsifying records.

Cline wrote that an investigation by consultant Phil Stanley found that understaffing was a prime cause of the tragedy and that the current staffing “is substantially worse” than that in place at the time of Farris’ death. He wrote that the guild was concerned that the commissioners would cut staffing due to the wage increases.

Felici said that’s simply not true. At the time of the death, the jail had 18 corrections deputies and a chief. Today there are 22 corrections deputies and a chief, three control room monitors, full-time medical staff, an embedded mental health worker and a jail transition coordinator. A new substance abuse treatment coordinator is also being hired.

Felici also pointed out that the letter “conveniently” failed to mention the second Stanley report, which was positive and credited the jail with making significant improvements.

The sheriff credits the jail staff for their professionalism and willingness to change their work culture, as well as the commissioners for large investments they’ve made in improving the facility and its operations.

Yet Cline pointed out that the guild and the jail had to adopt an emergency memorandum of understanding to address staffing shortages during the pandemic.

In his decision, the arbitrator also pointed out that the county is spending significantly less in jail staffing compared to comparable counties, which include Skagit, Lewis and Mason. Skagit County, for example, spends 5.9% of its total expenditures on corrections compensation while Island County only spends 2%.

The arbitrator also considered the gap between road deputy and corrections deputies wages. Without wage increases over five years, the gap had risen in Island County to 29%, which was inconsistent with industry trends. Clallam County has a 15% differential and Grays Harbor’s is 17%.

Prior to approving the contract, Commissioner Melanie Bacon said her only disappointment with the process was that contract only extends to July 31.

“And then we have to start all over again,” she said.