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Guest Editorial

Are the folks we send to Olympia listening?

Everyone agrees with the principle of equal pay for equal work - except perhaps a majority of those in control of the Washington State Legislature this year. This session, the first in which state workers were allowed to collectively bargain for wages and benefits, lawmakers approved a $26 billion state budget that discriminates against those workers who do not want to join a union.

Unionized state workers will get their 3.2 percent pay increase on July 1 while their non-union colleagues will have to wait until September 1 for their raises. The same delay is in next year's budget as well.

Why the unequal treatment?

Supporters claimed the delay would save the state almost $10 million. But others say the preferential treatment was a show of support for unions, which are strong supporters of the Democrat majority in the Legislature.

Rep. Sam Hunt, D-Olympia, defended the disparity, saying, "Why should the non-union employees receive the same benefits negotiated by the union?" Hunt added that pay for non-union employees is at the "whim of the Legislature."

Ironically, as a young attorney in the Gardner Administration in the 1980s, Gov. Christine Gregoire negotiated the nation's first comparable worth salary plan for underpaid female state employees. The guiding principle of that battle was equal pay for equal work.

Now it turns out that the two-tiered pay schedule could cost more than it saves. Changing the 30-year-old computer system that processes state paychecks to handle two pay scales could cost $8 million to $10 million. Rep. Hunt hasn't said what he intends to do with this new information.

This controversy comes in the midst of a battle to decertify the state employees union. In fact, state workers in the Department of Retirement Systems just voted to decertify their bargaining unit. With 169 members, the unit is the first of significant size to remove its union. So far, more than 30 decertification petitions have been submitted.

Washington is also embroiled in a separate lawsuit over pay discrimination. In late April, Court of Appeals Division II Judge David Armstrong ruled in favor of state employees who charged they were paid less than their counterparts in higher education. Armstrong's ruling could cost taxpayers $90 million to $100 million in back pay.

In his decision, Judge Armstrong said, "No rational basis exists to set different base salary schedules for state workers doing essentially the same work."

You have to wonder if the folks we elect and send to Olympia are listening.

Don C. Brunell is President of the Association of Washington Business.

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