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Workers strike at Echo Glen

SNOQUALMIE - Employees at Echo Glen Children's Center joined other state workers last week in a series of rolling walkouts designed to force the Legislature and Gov. Gary Locke to grant them a pay increase and boost funding for human-service programs.

On Friday, Kurt Higgins, president of the Washington Federation of State Employees Local 1681, the union that represents workers at Echo Glen, and seven others stood outside the gates of the facility, which houses children between the ages of 10 and 21. On the cool, cloudy morning, the picketers carried signs proclaiming, "State workers on strike!" and, "State budget harms quality services!" Another group of union members stood at the intersection of State Route 18 and Interstate 90, waving at passing traffic.

It marked the third day of walkouts for the 19,000-member union, which represents the largest number of state employees. Before the strike, Locke and Attorney General Christine Gregoire said the walkouts were illegal, but union officials countered that as long as necessary services were provided - such as taking care of the children at Echo Glen - they were within their rights to conduct the job actions.

At issue is the pay employees receive, as well as decreased funding to state-provided programs. The union wants a pay increase of 3.7 percent in 2002 and 3.1 percent in 2003, which would cost the state $170 million over the next two years. And it is also unhappy with plans to have members contribute more toward their health-care plans.

Locke and members of the Legislature say there isn't enough money for that large a pay increase. In the next biennium, 2002-2003, the state is expected to spend more than $22.8 billion, but revenues are projected to only equal $22.1 billion over that same period of time. To make up for shortfall, Locke, in his budget, called for $270 million in cuts to state programs, many of which provide social services, and using half of Washington's $1.1 billion budget reserve.

His budget included a pay increase for state employees, but at 2.2 percent in 2002 and 2.5 percent in 2003, it falls short of the union's demands.

In its plan, the Senate restored funding to agencies, but drew money from the police and firefighter pension fund. The House failed to pass a budget before the end of the session on Sunday, and Locke convened a special session that began on Wednesday.

Higgins had little sympathy for legislators who say there isn't enough money to go around.

"Dig it up," he said of money to fund pay increases for state workers. "You've got to be able to pay the people that work for you."

Echo Glen Children's Center can hold up to 208 male and female offenders within its cottages and related facilities. It provides services for children who have committed crimes and been sentenced to complete a treatment program. The center houses medium- to maximum-security offenders - mostly younger boys and older girls - and offers mental-health assistance, sex-offender treatment, drug and alcohol treatment and gender-specific treatment for girls. It also gives children the chance to make up what they may have missed in school through a program with the Issaquah School District.

Higgins, who is also a counselor at Echo Glen, said before going on strike union members made sure enough workers would be on hand to adequately care for the children. On Friday, 35 union members went to work at Echo Glen, as did management employees and one person who crossed the picket line. The center's nurses also joined the walkout, but they, too, provided needed staff.

Higgins said throughout the walkouts, the state employees' union has been conscious not to disrupt children and adult services. Two-thirds of the more than 200 members of Local 1681 took part in the strike vote. Higgins said 92 percent of those who voted were in favor of striking.

State agencies were prepared for the job actions, said Kathy Spear, a spokeswoman with the Department of Social and Health Services.

"The department had contingency plans in the event of a walkout," she said. "We're going to do whatever we need to do to ensure that those essential positions are covered." That includes management staff performing union members' tasks, like cooking and cleaning.

Echo Glen's associate superintendent, Ron Baltrusis, said Local 1681 members kept the center informed of Friday's walkout.

"The union's been very supportive of allowing us to have our holiday staffing pattern," he said last week. "They've insisted in giving us some extra staffing to stabilize some of our units that are having trouble with our mental-health kids."

He said his dealings with the union had been amicable.

"My experience so far here has been the kids are the priority," Baltrusis said.

For those who work at Echo Glen, including counselor Chuck Beatty, it can be rewarding when a child successfully makes it through the program. But because some of the children exhibit violent behavior, there are dangers.

"This is definitely not for everybody. It takes a special kind of person to work in this environment," Beatty said.

The average stay for a child is eight months, although some stay at Echo Glen for a year or more. Beatty said the center works hard to provide cutting-edge treatment techniques for the children, and over time, "We've seen a huge decrease in self-abusive behavior."

But those currently coming into the center seem to have more problems than in the past, he said.

"In the last few months, we've had quite an increase in kids coming in that meet mental-health screening criteria," he said. "Those kids usually need more one-to-one attention."

Mark Zahnle, a carpenter at Echo Glen, said he's seen evidence of the trend. "There are kids out here that are so violent they knock security doors down," he said. "The kids have become more troubled and more violent."

It's hard to attract employees to work in such a setting. Workers in comparable fields make more than their public-sector counterparts, and when the Legislature makes budget cuts, facilities such as Echo Glen are among the first to feel the pinch - and that also affects staff morale and retention.

"Under the circumstances, with the increased number of kids ... a lot of the cottages are really working under pretty tough conditions," Beatty said, to which Higgins agreed.

"Frankly, even under normal circumstances we don't have enough people to staff this place," Higgins said.

And then there's the cost of living on the Eastside, which is driving some employees away. Zahnle used to live in Fall City but moved because it become too expensive.

"We've lost a lot of good-quality people that just can't afford to work [at Echo Glen] anymore," Higgins said.

Walkouts scheduled for Sunday and Monday at other sites in Washington were canceled, but union leaders have promised to keep up the pressure. The union thus far has cooperated with keeping staffing at appropriate levels, but there is the chance things could grow more heated.

"The sentiment ... is a lot stronger for just walking out," Higgins said, explaining that if that were to happen, all union members would strike. "It's just under the surface, waiting to happen.

"I hope it doesn't get to that stage."

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