Collaboration in Civic Spheres

KIng County youth court guardians seek to unionize

by October 26th, 2011

A prominent public employee labor union filed a request Monday with the State of Washington’s Public Employment Relations Commision (PERC) to establish itself as the collective bargaining agent for 15 non-supervisory and non-clerical workers of the Court Appointed Special Advocates (CASA) program in King County Superior Court, which helps represent allegedly abused children age 11 and under in so-called “dependency” custody cases.

CASAs in King County, also known as Guardians Ad Litem (GALs) are specially-trained volunteers who help to advocate for allegedly abused young children going through the county court system to find safe harbor. They investigate cases and provide information to the court, pinpoint resources to help child clients, and help develop near-term and permanent care plans for children, who are represented in court by CASA staff attorneys and also helped by CASA paralegals and social workers. It is a portion of these staff workers who are seeking to unionize.

The Washington State Council of County and City Employees (WSCCCE) filed papers Tuesday with the state to gain approval for representing a 15-employee unit of King County Superior Court CASA workers, primarily mid-level managers and attorneys, in first-ever collective bargaining for the group. According to state forms, their attorney is Audrey Eide, who is also listed as having earned $181,849 in total compensation in 2010 from another public worker union, the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees.

Bill Keenan, Everett-based Director of Organizing for WSCCCE, said in an interview that, “the majority of King County employees are already represented by a labor union. When times are tough economically at King County, as is the case now, there’s a lot of talk about layoffs. Without (union) representation, there’s a risk of layoffs without talks” between the CASA employees and their management. Workers are also concerned about current and future workloads, Keenan said.

With other non-unionized court operations workers, CASA workers had previously sought to be included in an already-existing collective bargaining unit of King County Superior Court employees, Keenan said, but the state ruled against them, suggesting CASA workers should apply for representation on their own.

“We have to live with the decision, but it makes no sense at all, negotiating a separate contract” for some dozen-plus CASA workers at special extra expense during tight economic times, Keenan said.

A King County personnel roster for the CASA program shows 19 staff employees and one volunteer. The 15 employees eligible for the bargaining unit would be mainly mid-level managers and attorneys.

A salary database for King County employees reveals that the 2010 salaries for CASA union-eligible attorneys ranged from $74,298 to $82,957 and those of union-eligible managers from $39,600 to $67,707.

Lisa Petersen, CASA Program Manager, said she had started her job only very recently following the retirement three weeks ago of her predecessor Linda Katz, and that with respect to the union representation push by employees, she had “no comment on any of these issues.”

Katz had become embroiled in a controversy centered around a case in which, according to critics including State Sen. Pam Roach (R-Enumclaw), a CASA advocate named Terence F. Colyer played an influential role in a state intervention temporarily pulling a young client away from placement with her grandparents to a foster parent who eventually was denied custody in favor of the grandparents.

As the controversial case unfolded, Sen. Roach sought changes in state laws which would have required more public disclosure on the financial and employment backgrounds of CASA volunteers, a move opponents said would have a chilling effect on volunteerism.

Currently, according to the county’s CASA web site, “due to a shortage of volunteers, the program is currently able to assign a CASA in only about 60 percent of the dependency cases in King County.”

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