Friday, March 4, 2011

On “La Dolce Vita”, Or, The Real Life Of A State Worker

What with all the attacks on Labor in states like Indiana, Ohio, New Jersey, and Wisconsin, there has been just so much misunderstanding out there these past couple weeks about what things are actually like for State workers.

Are the conditions decent?
Is there excessive pay?
Is there even a need for State workers?

Well, I can’t answer every question, but I can sure tell you what it’s like in our house…and the reason my words carry the “voice of authority” is because The Girlfriend has been working for the State of Washington for the past 15 years.

Bona fides established, let’s get to telling the story:

Good morrow to the day so fair;
Good morning, Sir, to you:
Good morrow to mine own torn hair
Bedabbled with the dew

--From “The Mad Maid’s Song”, a selection from The Hesperides & Noble Numbers, by Robert Herrick

So as to make this story more fully informative, I went to work with The Girlfriend the other night, and what you’ll be reading today is basically my eyewitness report of what conditions are like at her workplace.

To be completely fair, she tells me that conditions at her facility are not as nice as the other comparable locations the State operates, so we'll have to establish right up front that this might not be a complete picture of how things are everywhere.

She is a nurse, The Girlfriend is, and she’s been working for the past 16 years with clients who live in what’s called a Residential Habilitation Center, and, to quote the State, her job is to “is to provide specialized care and support to people with developmental disabilities who have challenging needs”.

At the moment, the State operates five of these facilities, although that number is expected to be lower after this year; this because the number of clients being served has declined over time.

So the first thing we better talk about is the pay.

Ever since the labor unions took over State Government in Washington, wages for State workers have somewhat improved. The Girlfriend is earning in the middle of her pay range, which means she’s making about $870,000 a year, even though other nurses at her location jack in a million two or more.

(Washington State’s AFSCME is proud that they finally got our last State worker above $100,000; this was accomplished by changing Legislative Intern positions to Legislative Intern Level 7 positions and making step-pay increases part of that change.)

Of course, that’s not the whole package.

We woke up last night to the ringing of the call. On the line was the Facility Concierge, Lester, cheerfully waking us up.

We’re dressed, and heading out the door, and of course now the question is whether it’s a good idea to take the Bentley to work, what with the wintry weather and all, or to go with our SUV. You see, thanks to her State salary, we were able to purchase one of the two 2009 Lamborghini lm 800 SUV prototypes that were produced before the idea were abandoned…and even though—well, let’s just say there’s a “deal”.

See, the thing is, the valets at her facility are a bit sketchy, ever since the State outsourced the work (hey, the unions can’t win ‘em all)…and the Bentley can be replaced…and losing the Lamborghini would be a really big “deal”, because one of the other nurses owns one of those crazy Russian SUVs (she bought the Dartz Monaco Red Diamond Edition, even after they decided not to go with the whale penis leather seats), and there’s a lot of “keeping up with the Joneses” at her place…but we went with the Lambo anyway.

Lucky for us, two of our favorite valets (Tendei Furlough and Jenna Talia) were working, and we know the Lambo would be in safe hands with them.

I was starving, and she was, too; luckily for us the omelette and crêpe bar was still open at the cafeteria, which provides meals for State workers at no charge.

The cooks, as usual, had an excellent selection of Washington State food and beverage products available. I had crêpes with Yakima pheasant, Walla Walla sweet onions, and local champignon morel, all bound up in a lovely sauce Béchamel with just that little hint of clove that really makes it work for me.

She went for the Puget Sound King Crab omelette with freshly-gathered oyster mushrooms and Cougar Gold Dill Garlic cheese straight from the Washington State University creamery—which, I must say, was also an excellent choice.

The cooks apologized for the absence of fresh spot prawns, venison, and line-caught salmon tonight, but what with the State having to economize these days…what can you do?

At the table, our sommelier had something very special: some of the last of the 1996 Leonetti Cellar Cabernet Sauvignon out there anywhere—and I have to tell you, many people would not have chosen it with pheasant, but it was so nice that in this case I did not mind breaking convention. For a white, we had the 2008 Cadaretta "SBS" Columbia Valley Sauvignon Blanc-Sémillon; I gave it a taste, and I had to agree that it was indeed a 91-point wine.

Dessert was a lovely apple tart with fresh local cream and a glass of local Port, and then it was off to fitness and uniform services.

To help prevent on-the-job injuries, workers attend a paid two-hour workout session before each workday begins, and our guest fitness instructors this week had been brought in from markanthony’s of London, who are working out a deal with the State to bring “fitness podcast” to all workers at home.

After a shower, it’s back to the cafeteria for a break: scones, blueberry preserves, and mint tea for her (gathered from the on-campus garden), and a lovely slice of Remlinger Farm marionberry pie and an espresso doppio for me from one of the three baristas that are on duty at all times to meet the coffee needs of the 200 or so workers at the facility.

Tonight there’s an important union meeting and updates from State officials on new initiatives to come, so the next two hours is spent at The Conference Center, a building located next to the Japanese Garden and Koi pond and decorated in an Asian motif, with silk-covered chairs and teak and ebony furniture and many ornamental “panel” units scattered about the rooms.

A simple lunch was prepared and served tableside at The Conference Center by the Center’s catering staff: in honor of Hispanic Heritage Week and the former Caesar’s Restaurant in Tijuana, Mexico, we had the salad that bears the name, along with freshly made cranberry and walnut rolls and local creamery butter.

After our hour lunch break, which we spent shopping at the artisan mall that operates on the facility grounds (she’s having a hat made, I hit the tailor shop and ordered a dozen black turtleneck shirts, half in black, half in darker black, in case any “adventures” come up), we hit the “five hour on the clock mark”…and in Washington State, all State workers work five hours and get paid for eight.

So we caught the Campus Shuttle (there are electric vehicles available, on call, that carry workers from building to building) back to the valet station, collected the Lambo, and called it a day.

So that’s a great story, ain’t it?

Well, the reality is that Tendei Furlough is a name I invented because State workers are, this year, getting an unpaid ten day furlough, which means you just lost two weeks’ of pay this year.

Nurses? The reality is that most everyone she works with, nurses and nursing assistants alike, have been injured at one time or another because the staff is short and the clients might assault you or you might have to bear their weight unexpectedly.

The money is now better in the private sector, and benefits are catching up fast. (The “defined benefit” retirement system went away long ago, and today’s State workers, including The Girlfriend, with more than 15 years on the job, are in a “defined contribution” plan.)

There really haven’t been any raises, as any money they get on one end goes right back out the other in things like higher co-pays and—oh, yeah, that two weeks of pay they just sort of…lost.

There are fewer workers than before, but the workload is much higher than it was 15 years ago, which means even getting a break is now a “maybe, sometimes” kind of a deal.

Cafeteria? Valet? Please.

There is free parking, which is better than a lot of people have, but as far as amenities go, that’s about it.

Now the conversation is about how much more everyone’s pay can be cut…and I’m gonna tell ya, when you are on the way to becoming the lowest-paying job in town there is a point where things like providing client care and a decent education for your kids and keeping the prisoners inside the walls are going to be seriously impacted.

We just had a corrections worker killed on the job, and recent staff cutbacks might have been part of the reason why—and if you add declining pay to understaffing you end up with something like dollar store jail guards, which, as I mentioned above, is not gonna be good value for the taxpayer dollar.

By the way: does any of this sound like Governors are the stooges of labor leaders?

I hate to say it folks, and there are few politicians who will, but you cannot just cut taxes to zero and expect it to all work out.

Government costs money, people have to do the jobs, and hiring good people, just like in any other business, is a smart idea…and you don’t get good people if you just make the environment worse and worse and worse.

Governments have to decide how to spend money, and they have to spend wisely and well, and we all know that…but continually cutting, no matter what the cost, often leads to decisions that are neither wise nor well.

Often, over the negotiating table, government is forced to make better decisions about things like class sizes and buying bullet-resistant vests for cops, even if the elected leaders would rather do nothing but cut taxes, no matter what the cost, and when you strip away the voice of workers, you pretty much guarantee that the workplace won’t be a better place, either for the workers, or for the customers.

Those customers, of course, are you and me, and if you want the business of government that you’re paying those taxes to run to run well…then it’s time to support your State’s workers—and to get loud about it.

If we do we can make it plenty painful for the elected officials who, right now, are so busy trying to advance their careers by screwing over State workers that they might as well change all their last names to either Phillips, Slotted, or PoziDriv #4…and, as Martha Stewart would say, “that’s a good thing”.

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