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Ditchriders call in sick

by CHARLES H. FEATHERSTONE
Staff Writer | March 29, 2022 5:24 PM

OTHELLO — A number of union employees with the East Columbia Basin Irrigation District called in sick on Monday and Tuesday, just as the district was beginning to fill and prime its irrigation system, according to ECBID Secretary/Manager Craig Simpson.

Simpson said the ECBID, which has been in contract talks with International Union of Operating Engineers Local 280 since the current contract expired at the end of 2020, has enough people to operate the ECBID’s system right now. However, water deliveries could become difficult if the alleged sickout continues, he said.

“If they are sick, I hope they get better,” Simpson said.

Simpson said he was not aware of any water deliveries being delayed because of the absences, primarily because it was too early in the irrigation season.

“We just started priming canals on March 28,” he said. “We will endeavor to keep deliveries normal if enough employees show up. Right now, it’s not problematic.”

However, if the short-handedness continues, Simpson said, it could become difficult to make timely deliveries of Columbia Basin Project water to roughly 160,000 acres in Grant, Adams and Franklin counties.

A March 28 press release from ECBID said negotiations with the union had stalled because union representatives had rejected the most recent labor proposal on March 21. Contested issues include wages, benefits and stipends, according to the release. The wage for union members remains at 2020 levels until an agreement is reached and the average for union members is about $25.80 hourly.

It is unknown if the ditchriders calling in sick is a formal sick-out; however, according to the Washington State Attorney General’s Office’s website, government employees in the state do not necessarily have a legally protected right to strike.

“Although we have located three statutes affirmatively prohibiting public employees from striking, we have located no Washington statutes imposing penalties on employees of state or local government for engaging in a strike,” a 2006 statement from then Attorney General Rob McKenna states.

Simpson said 44 ECBID employees are covered by the contract with IUOE Local 280. The contract has been extended several times and is still in place, Simpson added, with the primary sticking points being wages and benefits. Negotiators have been close at times to reaching a new deal, though they have not been successful so far, he said.

“I still hope we can,” Simpson said.

Representatives with IUOE Local 280 in Richland did not respond to requests for comment prior to press time.

Charles H. Featherstone can be reached at cfeatherstone@columbiabasinherald.com.

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