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County Transitions to 32-Hour Work Week Without Less Pay

The San Juan County, Wash., Council voted unanimously to transition to a 32-hour work week for approximately 70 percent of the county’s workforce without decreasing the employees’ pay. The move raises wage rates while avoiding a possible tax increase.

A small island county in Washington state is moving most of its employees to a 32-hour workweek without lowering their pay.

The San Juan County Council voted unanimously Tuesday to approve the change, which officials negotiated with a labor union that represents 142 nurses, environmental stewards, road-crew workers, park workers, clerks and other county employees. They account for about 70 percent of the county's labor force. Sheriff's Office employees and managers won't be affected.

San Juan County, which encompasses the San Juan Islands (like San Juan, Orcas, Lopez and Shaw), and which has a population of about 18,000, is one of the first local governments in the U.S. to ditch a 40-hour workweek, officials say, joining a growing trend among some private employers. The county's leaders say they're making the change to keep their budget under control, address staffing challenges and give employees more personal time.

Union members came to the bargaining table seeking major raises to offset years of inflation. Cutting their hours while paying them about the same amount of money will increase their per-hour wage rates substantially without requiring the county to raise taxes, officials say, hoping in the process to attract job applicants seeking a superior work-life balance.

"We knew we needed to find a way to compensate our employees" but didn't want to "turn to the taxpayer" for more funds, except as a last resort, County Manager Mike Thomas said in an interview Tuesday.

The employees moving to four-day weeks will have more concentrated time to hike, bike, volunteer and hang out with their kids, officials say. They won't have to miss work to take care of weekday errands on the mainland so often, which should improve their productivity, Thomas added.

"The 32-hour workweek is both fiscally responsible and socially responsive. It takes into account a full-time, working islander's way of life," County Council Chair Cindy Wolf said in a statement. "This change brings the opportunity to ... do all the many things which are important to personal and community well-being without interrupting workflow."

Won't reduced work hours mean reduced services? The county isn't taking away any public services its workers provide now, officials say, though some departments may be open less. Instead, they're betting a shorter week will make employees more efficient, they say, citing research on the topic, including results from a pilot program in the United Kingdom.

"Wherever this has been implemented, elsewhere in the world, productivity has actually increased," said Frances Robertson, a marine biologist with the county who was on the AFSCME 1849 union's negotiating team.

The county will stagger schedules in certain cases and cluster shifts in other cases to keep departments working and to complete projects on time, Thomas said when asked about tasks like the road striping the county undertakes every year. The 32-hour rule won't apply to emergencies.

"I think we can, with our staffing, still get the work done," he said.

Island residents love the beautiful landscapes and seascapes that bring nature lovers from all over the world to their rural, water-bound county, but the torrent of tourists has driven up living costs, forcing many locals to work multiple jobs, said Libby Concord, a grants manager for the county auditor.

Moving to a 32-hour week will give those employees a chance to breathe a bit or increase their hours at their side jobs, said Concord, who grew up on San Juan Island. Concord plans to spend more time at the gym and become more active in the local music community; she plays clarinet and saxophone.

"Use my weekends to rest instead of having to cram in all the chores I didn't have energy for during the week," the union member said in an interview

Like many employers in Washington and beyond since the COVID-19 pandemic began, San Juan County has been struggling to hire workers and keep up with requests for higher wages, officials said Tuesday.

A chronic 10-15 percent job-vacancy rate has made it harder for departments to meet deadlines and prevent burnout, the officials said, and about 15 percent of the county's employees are set to become eligible for retirement in the next three years. Hiring can be particularly hard in San Juan County because the islands are so isolated, accessible only by ferry, private boat or plane.

Residents often have to travel to the mainland to visit doctors, see relatives and do shopping. Getting to Seattle can take hours. When Robertson was pregnant, every checkup with her physician across the water in Anacortes meant a day away from the office, she said. Child care is scarce on the islands, especially on Fridays, so a four-day workweek will help parents, she added.

"It has always been challenging to recruit and retain workers ... due to how remote we are and the high cost of living here," but employees are also more empowered today than in the past and are insisting on healthier work-life boundaries, said Angie Baird, the county's human resources director.

With some restaurants, shops and other businesses on the San Juan Islands recently reducing their hours or staffing, or even closing down completely because of economic and labor-market pressures, the county "must respond to employee needs to remain a competitive employer," Baird said.

AFSCME 1849 members greenlit the new arrangement last week and the new hours will start in October. The employees will see their base wage rates adjusted to ensure their take-home pay doesn't decrease. They're getting a cost-of-living boost, as well. Had the county not agreed to a 32-hour week, the union would have pushed for larger raises, said Thomas, the county manager.

Could the county have played hardball?

"People have this notion that you go to the table and pound your fist, but we need employees to provide services," Thomas said. "You're cutting your own throat if you're not putting out a reasonable package."

Certain county offices that are open to the public may adjust their hours or close one day each week, while law enforcement and emergency services will continue without any changes, said officials, who plan to track the effects of the new setup on hiring, service delivery and employee wellness.

Robertson, who leads the county's effort to protect its southern resident orcas, said she plans to spend her extra nonwork time doing scientific research. She studies minke whales in the Salish Sea, sometimes by conducting research by boat. What she learns about those animals informs her day job, she said.

"I cannot wait," Robertson said, "to get back out on the water."

(c)2023 The Seattle Times. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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