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Nearly all of King County’s labor contracts are completed after the prior contract expires, which creates significant added workload for county staff to process retroactive pay for employees. The Office of Labor Relations has made several improvements to its workflow and communication with other county agencies but does not have processes in place to further improve the timeliness and quality of contract language. This increases the risk of vague or conflicting language, making contracts more difficult to implement and requiring staff time to clarify language. Finally, the County does not centrally track employee contract grievances, which makes it harder to ensure equitable response practices and improve future contracts.

Summary

Labor contracts establish the pay and working conditions for many county employees. OLR plays a critical role in King County’s employer-employee relations by helping to craft the labor agreements that guide county operations and inform the cost of labor. OLR negotiates, implements, and administers over 75 labor agreements covering the terms of employment for the County's approximately 12,500 represented employees. OLR must help ensure that all stakeholders clearly understand the terms of labor contracts to ensure correct implementation in county processes and systems.

Nearly all of King County’s labor contracts are completed after the prior contract expires. Between 2010 and 2019, 99 percent
of King County labor contracts were approved after the previous contract expired.
The timeliness of contracts depends on multiple actors, including the Office of Labor Relations (OLR), labor unions, the County Executive, and the County Council, and these actors have made recent efforts to shorten the amount of time needed to approve contracts. We focused on OLR for this audit and found that OLR is increasing its focus on timeliness, but lacks specific dates for contract management milestones, which contributes to contract timeliness challenges. Contracts completed after the prior contract expires have many consequences, including that county staff spend significant time to calculate and provide payments backdated to the start of the contract to employees.

Vague or conflicting contract language can create liability for the County and add work for county agencies. Like timeliness, the quality of contract language depends on multiple actors. Since 2016, OLR has made several improvements to its workflow and communication with county agencies and unions, but the office does not have enough guidance or steps in place to ensure the quality of contract language. This increases the risk of vague or conflicting language, making contracts more difficult to implement and requiring more time from staff to clarify language. Finally, the County does not centrally track employee grievances, which makes it harder to improve contracts and ensure consistent response practices across the County.

To reduce the workload of county agencies implementing contract terms and processing payments, we recommend that OLR continue to build on improvements it has made by providing negotiators with guidance and steps to help manage timeliness and the quality of contract language. We also recommend that the County Executive implement a grievance data system to support OLR’s efforts to improve contracts and help agencies ensure equity in grievance responses.

Audit team

If you have any questions or would like more information, please call the King County Auditor's Office at 206-477-1033 or contact us by email at KCAO@kingcounty.gov.