Layoffs at Carnation prompt frustrations, possible litigation

City lets go of four longtime employees a week after approving a new collective bargaining agreement.

The City of Carnation laid off four longtime employees a week after approving a new collective bargaining agreement, and the decision came to a head during a tense — and at times rowdy — city council meeting on Feb. 21.

A crowd of residents gathered inside council chambers, and more than 40 minutes of public comments voiced sympathy for the terminated employees and frustrations about the direction of the city. The terminated employees are the latest turnover among longtime city staff. Residents say the turnover has been abrupt and has left the city without any institutional knowledge.

Layoffs came only a week after the city council approved a new collective bargaining agreement (CBA), following months of negotiations with Teamsters Local 736, a labor union that represents the four employees. The new agreement included a significant pay raise for employees. City officials said the added cost created a budget deficit that required layoffs to cut costs.

Since the layoffs, councilmembers said speculation and rumors have spread on social media. Councilmember Adair Hawkins said many unfairly targeted City Manager Ana Cortez, who started at the city in 2021. Hawkins said comments include remarks about Cortez’s race and gender.

“You’re absolutely right, we have nobody left that was here in the past, and I think there is something to say about longevity, but it’s not because Ana didn’t try,” Kim Lisk, a former mayor of Carnation, told residents during the public comment period Feb. 21 while speaking over a heckler.

Councilmembers claim they were strong-armed into approving a new CBA and pay raise, with threats of litigation, despite objections noting the cost would be burdensome.

Employees deny that claim.

“There was no bullying or no ‘you have to take this or else,’” one of the four terminated city employee’s said during public comment on Feb. 21.

“All of us feel betrayed,” another former city employee said. “How can you sign an agreement you have no intention of honoring? Because you knew your numbers beforehand.”

Melissa Maufa, a business agent for Teamsters Local 736, declined an interview request from the Valley Record, citing pending litigation.

However, in a pre-written statement, Maufa said the city laid off its employees only days after reaching an agreement, while retaining its management and out-of-state consultants. She went on to claim the city had violated its CBA by assigning the work of terminated staff to its consultants.

“Teamsters 763 will vigorously represent our members’ rights to continued employment with the city,” she said.

Under the new CBA, city staffers receive a 23% pay bump over the next three years, costing the city roughly $90,000 a year. Although councilmembers had objections to that increase, they included it and approved a new CBA on the advice of legal counsel, Deputy Mayor Tim Harris said.

“To avoid spending hundreds of thousands of dollars in litigation, with the prospect of losing, we approved a new [CBA] that raises base salaries for union employees in Carnation to be equitable with wages in Redmond,” he said. “Under that agreement, the city retains its management rights and the power to lay off employees.”

Councilmembers claimed the union requested the salary increase to make Carnation salaries “equitable” with neighboring King County cities.

City leaders argued Carnation, at a population of 2,200, does not have the tax base of other more wealthy Eastside cities. They said absorbing that cost would require the property tax revenue generated from roughly 134 of the 150 homes under construction along Tolt Avenue.

Knowing it cannot compete with other cities on salary, Harris said, Carnation has historically relied on no-cost health insurance plans to recruit staff. To curb the cost of the CBA, city staff requested a cost sharing program for future health insurance plans, but the union would not negotiate on the topic, Harris said.

“The words the union used was ‘we need equity in pay scale,’” Mayor Jim Ribail said at the Feb. 7 council meeting. “The equity they were judging us against was cities like North Bend, Bellevue, Redmond, Kirkland, and we don’t have the same tax base.”

At the meeting Feb. 21, Ribail described a hostile negotiation process, saying the union would not meet with the city for months, would walk out of negotiations, and would threaten the city with litigation when demands were not met. He also claimed the union representative attempted to contact councilmembers’ spouses.

Ribail said the decision to lay off employees was not taken lightly.

“Does anyone really think this council wanted to lay anyone off? We are all elected officials in a small city,” he said. “We see these people all the time.”

A voicemail left for Ribail seeking an interview was not immediately returned.