Worker’s-eye View: Pushing to do right by utility contact center employees working to help Seattle residents

Joel Vancil
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I work for the city of Seattle at the Seattle Public Utilities Contact Center (SPUCC), where I am a union steward for PROTEC17. Workers at SPUCC are expected, in the best of conditions, to assist ratepayers with their bills, payments, and service for electricity, water, sewer, garbage, yard waste, and recycling. But these are not the best of conditions — far from it. 

Since early March, many of the ratepayers I talk to are out of work or working very little, and calling me to figure out how to keep the lights and water on. Even as late as mid-March we were sitting five people to a row four feet apart with no wall in between, like nothing was different. We had no personal protective equipment and minimal cleaning supplies, and if one of us had the virus then many of us would have been exposed.

On Thursday, March 12, I told my PROTEC17 union rep that the members who work in SPUCC seemed ready to sign a petition to the mayor in regard to COVID-19. We worked with a team of SPUCC stewards and members to draft one over the next 24 hours. The demands included:

  • Paid administrative leave for city employees who had symptoms of CoVID-19, who had been exposed to someone who had, or who needed to care for a family member
  • Retroactive paid administrative leave for those who had already taken sick or vacation for the same reasons
  • Free testing on request
  • Better sanitization and more cleaning supplies
  • One-year suspension of utility shutoffs and crediting of any late fees
  • Availability of all city low-income utility assistance programs to those experiencing temporary hardship due to the crisis

PROTEC17 staff ultimately decided not to deliver it to the mayor, giving the rationale that many of our demands were already being met or were being pursued by the union. That was partly true. 

Shutoffs have been suspended indefinitely and we’re not charging late fees. We have more cleaning supplies. Assistance programs have relaxed their requirements and streamlined their application processes. On March 20, the city told workers who are over 60, pregnant, immunocompromised, or exhibiting symptoms of COVID-19 to stay home. They directed anybody who could to work from home. Workers who wanted to work from home were transitioned to at-home work at a rate of about four people per day. The few who insist on working at the office are spaced at least six feet apart now.

For employees that can’t work from home or come to the office, the latest directive is that they “use existing sick leave during their absence and contact their Human Resources representative for additional leave options.” The union clarified, saying that workers “will be compensated without having to use your own leave banks.” The city resisted that, but was persuaded to reverse themselves after the state attorney general made it clear that using public funds for that leave was permissible on the grounds that it would “further fundamental public purposes, such as protecting the public health and welfare.”

At this time the city has neither suspended bargaining rights nor openly threatened furloughs or layoffs. But the chief budget officer has frozen hiring, eliminated overtime, and eliminated other discretionary spending. In my opinion, Seattle city leadership is planning for the worst. The union may be afraid to rock the boat too hard right now, but I fully expect PROTEC17 to mobilize our membership and seek community support if the jobs of members are threatened. I’ve reached out to the current and former SPUCC shop stewards so we can start planning how we’ll fight back if we need to.

Contact Center workers are under tremendous strain. One young worker I talked to ordinarily lives with her 90-year-old grandfather, but lately has been couch surfing with various friends — putting herself at greater risk to minimize his risk. She still visits him occasionally, but has to keep a distance and doesn’t stay long. She’s healthy, but that’s no guarantee of safety these days. We talked politics for a minute a couple weeks ago, and she had hoped to vote Sanders for president. Her two big issues seem to be healthcare and student debt.

Meanwhile, ratepayers still ask how I’m doing, how my office is doing, whether we’re teleworking yet. We often chat about the failures of the federal government. For all its hardships, this is a time when people are reaching out to one another to share ideas and compassion.

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