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Washington state union activists protect vacation days

Photo credit: Getty
By Patrick Sugrue, WFSE/AFSCME Council 28 ·
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Jessica Crowell. Photo credit: WFSE/AFSCME Council 28.

State-Operated Living Alternatives (SOLAs) are community-based homes for adults and children with developmental disabilities. Clients in SOLAs receive individualized support from counselors to manage their medications, reach personal goals, shop for groceries and build relationships within their community.

The counselors providing these supports have been stretched thin for years. Washington state’s upside-down tax code means funding gaps and difficulty in recruiting and retaining staff are the norm – as is staff burnout.

Then the pandemic hit, and things went from bad to worse. COVID-19 restrictions and the emotional impact of the pandemic had a snowball effect on SOLA clients and staff.

SOLA clients are to leave their homes for community activities five days a week, but that was challenging with most businesses, schools and day programs closed. To make matters worse, families and friends couldn’t visit due to state and local health mandates.

“The individuals we serve thrive on predictability and structure," said Jessica Crowell, a WFSE/AFSCME Council 28 shop steward and a SOLA counselor. "Not being able to get energy out with positive outlets increases maladaptive behaviors dramatically. … We have specific de-escalation techniques we can use to keep the individuals we serve and ourselves safe. Normally we would have to use them every few days. During the pandemic, it was multiple times a day.”

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Shannon Rushing. Photo credit: WFSE/AFSCME Council 28.

If SOLA staff ever needed their vacation days, it was during the pandemic. But toward the end of 2020, management made an abrupt change to the vacation scheduling system that resulted in the 18 least-senior SOLA counselors being unable to put in vacation requests.

SOLA staff are required to get their vacations scheduled a year in advance. In the past, SOLA used a system in which the employees with the most seniority picked their vacation days for the following year and then passed the calendar to those with the second-longest seniority and so on.

Instead of starting the calendar in early November, SOLA managers waited until the end of December to announce the scheduling process, and didn’t provide an actual calendar. They just asked employees what days they wanted to take off.

Nobody could see which days had already been taken, so they were forced to shoot blind and hope they had requested an available segment of days. Many employees had their segments rejected and had to guess again, or wait to do first come first serve, a far less guaranteed option.

By the time the March cutoff for vacation requests came and went, more than a dozen people were left off the calendar and could not put in any vacation days for the year.

Shannon Rushing, a counselor who works in a SOLA home with four clients, needed time off to see her son graduate from military boot camp.

“I hadn’t seen my son in three months. That’s the longest I’ve gone without seeing him. I had a chance to see him graduate, and my boss was telling me, ‘No, the deadline passed,’” Rushing said. “It felt like someone was going out of their way to mess with us. I was planning on quitting. I was going to see my son graduate from boot camp no matter what. This is time we earned.”

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Ramiro Vijarro. Photo credit: WFSE/AFSCME Council 28.

One person the calendar fiasco didn’t affect was Ramiro Vijarro. But the veteran counselor knew how terrible it was for his peers, and he spoke up.

“I was pretty surprised by how management handled it. They basically just said, ‘You didn’t meet the deadline. Sorry.’ I knew it wasn’t right, so I worked with my union steward, Jessica, to see what we could do. I haven’t been that involved with our union in the past, but this got me involved,” he said.

Throughout March, member activists and WFSE staff attempted an informal resolution with SOLA, but management wasn’t willing to fix the process. So a group grievance was filed on behalf of all attendant counselors at SOLA.

“In three days we had a signed settlement with what we wanted: an extended calendar process for those who didn’t get their vacation days, and a commitment to bargain with us on how the scheduling system works in the future,” said Crowell.

And that is yet another example of the union difference.

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