Fort Vancouver Regional Libraries and its largest employee union remain at odds after months of contract negotiations.
Members of the Washington Public Employees Association — which at the library includes 163 aides, clerks and other paraprofessional positions — are advocating for raises they say will bring their salaries in line with those of their peers in other library systems in the region.
Dana Hoffman, chair of the bargaining unit, said the library’s budget staff is prioritizing the construction and expansion of new libraries over the wellbeing of employees.
“I think they are so blinded by their desire to make pretty new libraries that they don’t care who they run over to get to the new library at the end,” Hoffman said.
Library officials, however, say raises at the level the bargaining unit is asking for could be unsustainable in future years.
“We want to support and pay our employees, but we also have a responsibility to the taxpayer,” said Amelia Shelley, executive director of Fort Vancouver Regional Libraries. “So whatever we do has to be sustainable.”
The negotiations, which have been ongoing since May of 2018, center around a 2017 salary study conducted by Minneapolis-based consulting group Pontifex. The survey, which looked at compensation for similar positions at library systems throughout the Pacific Northwest, found that employees at Fort Vancouver Regional Libraries are underpaid compared with staff in other systems.
According to the study, provided to The Columbian by Hoffman, employees at the lower end of the library salary scale are paid, on average, 12.2 percent less than their peers with similar classifications and experience. Employees at the middle of the salary scale are making, on average, 8.1 percent less than those with similar classifications and experience. The highest paid employees, on average, are making 4.1 percent less than similar staff.
The union filed a grievance with the Public Employment Relations Commission accusing the library of not using the market study to inform negotiations, as the 2017-2019 WPEA contract suggests it would. The contract reads, “effective Jan. 1, 2019, hourly rates will be adjusted based on the current market study and other considerations.”
“The agency refuses to use the market study,” Hoffman said.
Lee Strehlow, human resources director for the library system, disagrees. She says the library bargained a 4 percent wage increase for all staff in 2018 and has offered a 3.5 percent wage increase this year to bring salaries closer to the average midpoint.
“We have a fairly senior group of employees,” Strehlow said. “We don’t have a lot of turnover and attrition, so we’re trying to make that impact on that midpoint level.”
Hoffman said that doesn’t adequately address employees who are even more steeply underpaid, according to the Pontifex study. Collection assistants in the middle of the salary range, for example, were paid $33,530 in 2017, according to the study. That’s 17.3 percent less than the market average of $40,541.
“There is no way to apply one number to this,” Hoffman said. “It’s not even a bandage. It’s ignoring the problem of disparity between the classifications.”
Library officials estimate raises at the level the union is seeking would cost about $682,000 per year. The library’s proposal, meanwhile, would cost an estimated $201,000 per year. The library’s overall budget is $27,616,420 for 2019. Of that, $16,415,785 pays for personnel, including benefits and wages.
Mediated bargaining is ongoing with assistance from the Public Employment Relations Commission. Strehlow is optimistic that support from a mediator will allow negotiations to move forward.
“We really don’t relish going to arbitration on this issue,” she said.