Rantz: King County fired the unvaccinated, now pays $103 an hour to fix staffing crisis

Jan 19, 2022, 6:04 AM | Updated: 9:43 am
King County jail, staffing...
An officer stands near a sign for the King County Correctional Facility in downtown Seattle. (AP Photo/Ted S. Warren)
(AP Photo/Ted S. Warren)

After King County Executive Dow Constantine implemented a COVID-19 vaccine mandate on county workers, the Department of Adult and Juvenile Detention (DAJD) lost over two dozen employees.

The staffing situation is now so dire that the county is paying some correctional officers over $100 an hour for overtime. And the county may still end up releasing criminals to alleviate the pressure on the detention facilities.

The county now offers 2.5 times a staff member’s base rate for overtime time worked. Correctional officers are paid on a 12-step graduated salary plan. If a top-step officer making $41.21 per hour volunteers for these shifts, they would make $103 per hour.

It’s a last-ditch, desperate move by a county that brought the crisis on itself when it fired some 35 staff members over the vaccine mandate.

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The agreement comes out of desperation

The high pay rate is meant to entice volunteers to take overtime shifts.

Due to a staffing crisis that pre-dated COVID, the DAJD was forced to lean on mandatory overtime. Constantine’s vaccine mandate made the staffing situation nearly untenable. The overtime has gotten to the point of employee burn-out, and something needed to be done.

“We are facing almost 100 vacancies and, as you know, the county has long relied on the use of forced mandatory overtime to staff their jails. We have officers being forced to work 16-hour shifts, often three to four days in a row with no relief,” Dennis Folk, president of the King County Corrections Guild (KCCG), told the Jason Rantz Show on KTTH.

To address the situation, King County entered into a 60-day agreement with the KCCG. The Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) was signed on Jan. 14, 2022.

This may not have been as necessary had the vaccine mandate not gone into effect. After firing unvaccinated staff members, with the promise it would provide for a safe, COVID-free workforce, the omicron variant took its toll. Some 70 staff members are out with COVID, according to Folk, and they are vaccinated.

“It would have helped to keep some staff. Losing 35 capable officers is a big hit,” Folk explained.

Folk tells the Jason Rantz Show on KTTH that Constantine must rehire the fired workers. Though he doesn’t think it will happen.

“Let’s put it on record. Dow, let’s bring back these corrections officers who were let go by the COVID mandate and let’s help our staffing problem,” he said.

Releasing criminals is likely next

The MOU may not be enough to stave off what seems like an inevitable emergency. The KCCG is demanding a two-week shutdown of all jail operations due to omicron sweeping through the jails in Seattle and Kent.

In a letter sent to Executive Constantine and other local leaders, the KCCG is asking the county to “stop issuing warrants for misdemeanor and non-violent offenses.” More troublesome, the KCCG is seeking the “immediate release of all misdemeanor and non-violent offenders.”

This comes with incalculable risk to the public.

Many times, a misdemeanor charge is a result of a criminal offered a deal to plea to lesser charges. And given the prolific offender problem plaguing the county, a non-violent offender still poses a significant risk.

The county is already dealing with record-high violent crime. Felonious acts are seldom carried out by first-time offenders. Often, a criminal is arrested for lower-level crimes before their behavior escalates to felonies.

But the KCCG argues the staffing situation has “reached a boiling point, leading to both working conditions and conditions of incarceration that are intolerable and unsustainable.” Is there an end in sight? No.

Help isn’t on the way

Folk says the department just hired 13 new officers. But they won’t be ready to be used for months.

“These officers must attend a three-week new employee orientation, then they are sent to the state police/corrections academy in Burien where they get 10 weeks of academy training,” Folk explains. “Then when that’s done, they have to come back and start field training, which is nine weeks, I believe. So these new officers will be of no value to the staffing shortage until summertime. Then you add the huge morale problem we are facing, and upcoming retirements and separations — we are predicting 50 [more staff] leaving by summer.”

The DADJ clearly needs all the qualified staff it can get.

Unfortunately, Constantine fired many good officers. One of them is Officer M, who asked to go by this name for fear speaking out will impact future job prospects.

Feeling betrayed

Officer M did not want to comply with the vaccine mandate. She asked for weekly testing and stringent mask usage. The DADJ rejected her request.

On Dec. 10, she was “involuntarily” separated by DADJ Director John Diaz. In his separation letter, he said Officer M was a health risk to unvaccinated staff.

When Officer M heard about the MOU and increased pay, she was disgusted.

“I feel betrayed and I feel anger for my friends who have to deal with the aftermath of the county’s reckless and heartless decision,” she told the Jason Rantz Show on KTTH. “They’ve lost really great officers they won’t be able to replace, and have caused a lot of hardship in the process.”

Officer M, knowing the staffing struggle, also thinks the idea of releasing criminals is dangerous, though she doesn’t blame guild leadership for the proposal.

“I know Dennis [Folk] wants to alleviate some of the population to help with COVID, but releasing criminals, violent or not, will not benefit the citizens of King County and this state,” Officer M said. “These ‘non-violent’ offenders aren’t contributing citizens of society and will continue to break laws if allowed to. As we both know, the laws are getting more lenient and violence is getting worse.”

Listen to the Jason Rantz Show weekday afternoons from 3–6 pm on KTTH 770 AM (HD Radio 97.3 FM HD-Channel 3). Subscribe to the podcast here. Follow @JasonRantz  on  Twitter,  Instagram, and Facebook. Check back frequently for more news and analysis.

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Rantz: King County fired the unvaccinated, now pays $103 an hour to fix staffing crisis