COVID frustration and fatigue impacting City of Edmonds front-line workers

Public works employees on the job. (Photos courtesy City of Edmonds)

Updated Sept. 24 with a response from Mayor Mike Nelson and on Sept. 28 with an edit to a quote from Economic Devvelopment Director Patrick Doherty

COVID frustration and fatigue are taking a toll on some of the city’s front-line workers. It’s not the virus itself; though several of the 88 staffers in the City of Edmonds Public Works Department did come down with coronavirus. It’s the fatigue as they watch many other city employees continue to work from home, and the frustration of thinking city administrators don’t respect them and what they’ve done, day after day, for the past 19-months.

Director of Public Works and Utilities Phil Williams

Their department chief, Public Works and Utilities Director Phil Williams, told me “I understand the way they feel; some of it’s  inevitable, based on their jobs. We did everything we can do to protect them at every step, and we still are.”

But more than a dozen city front-line workers agreed to meet with me, in a group, to air their grievances. They had never done this before and requested anonymity, concerned they said, for their careers. One of them put it this way, “I feel like we are the ones that literally run the show of this city, keeping the infrastructure running, but yet we get treated like ‘the little stepchild.'”

Another chimed in: “It’s not safe enough for them to come back to work in city hall, but it’s OK for all of us to be here and get in crew trucks with one another and go out and work, but it’s not safe enough for them to be in their cubicles with air purifiers.”

The 88 men and women of public works maintain the sewers, storm drains, streets, water system, wastewater treatment plant and city buildings. There have been at least three COVID cases in the staff; all have recovered. Some staff members — the engineers and inspectors — have been able to work from home, but everyone else is in a truck or on a job every day.

The front-line frustrations surfaced in early August when someone sent an anonymous complaint on their behalf to the new city bias/discrimination hot line

Complaint to bias/discrimination tip line.

One of the allegations reads: “The city has spent significant taxpayer dollars remodeling the 2nd floor (City Hall) to make safe work environment, yet still have not required employees to return to work…”

The online complaint claims a city administrator said Edmonds didn’t need hazard pay “because they are all working from home.” The complaint also accuses the mayor and city council with “failure to protect their front-line workers and families…”

Human Resources Director Jessica Neill-Hoyson said that when the pandemic hit in 2020, the city split up the work teams for those who still had to come in, like those working in public works and parks. One team worked one week, the other team was home on call; they alternated work weeks until Edmonds got enough personal protective gear and set safety protocols.

Patrick Doherty, the city’s director of economic development, reviews the hotline tips. I asked if the city would investigate the complaint. He told me that upon initial investigation, it was evident that some of the complaint was not true, and some was due to misunderstandings, so “no further investigation is necessary,” he said. “We know what we required of various units of employees.”

Initially, the workers were awarded hazard pay, money coming from the federal government. That ended in June of last year. Splitting public works into rotating weekly shifts also ended then and that, the workers say, made no sense. They argue that practice meant trucks with them riding shoulder to shoulder. One said, “I worked with a guy who tested positive and had to quarantine for two weeks, but I was back to work the next day.”

Public Works Director Williams admitted there are what he called ‘built-in disparities” but said that his department cannot work from home. He insisted that “we have done everything we could for the maintenance people, keeping their vehicles clean, wearing masks, opening truck windows to bring in fresh air.” As for trying to assign just one person per vehicle, “that’s not efficient,” Williams said, “but the priority is health.” He pointed out that the main public works office now has two air scrubbers to make conditions safer inside. The workers claim the air scrubbers showed up just recently, after their complaint hit the tip line.

The public works employees belong to the Teamsters Union. Their contract was up last year, but the members agreed to extend it because of COVID. Negotiations will start again soon. But all those who met with me insist their complaints are not a union ploy to take to the bargaining table. Their boss, Williams, agrees. saying he doesn’t think the frustrations they are voicing will be an impasse for negotiations.

So, I asked the workers: Have you taken your gripes to the mayor or the city council? They all said they have not. “Do you really expect that we can go to the higher ups at city hall and say anything to them?” asked one. When pushed on that point, several said they don’t believe the mayor, or some councilmembers, would listen.

Mayor Mike Nelson told My Edmonds News that the pandemic has been hard on all city workers.

“I appreciate our public works employees coming forward to share their concerns about COVID-19 working conditions,” he said. “I acknowledge the frustrations they have had and continue to be experiencing.”

Nelson added that he values their critical role and will listen, adding: “I look forward to meeting with the concerned employees.”
After a half hour of discussion, what came up again and again as they spoke was the topic of respect — and the lack of respect they feel. “We take pride in what we do. We work for the citizens, we’re always there to give you the best, but we’re not treated the best by the people that are supposed to take care of us,” one worker said.

Phil Williams said he hopes he has some better news for his staff. “I understand their pain. I am working with city management to see if we can get the council to provide some financial gesture toward them.” What that would amount to, he does not know, but said it could be similar to what Snohomish County awarded to its front-line workers for “a recognition of what you do.”

The 14 who talked to me had never gathered in a group before to sound off on their frustrations and fatigue. They know that ultimately, everything will not be “equal and fair” for all Edmonds employees — some still will work from home; others still will have to show up. What they hope is that they have gotten the city’s acknowledgement and respect. Williams knows it; “I could not be more proud of what they’ve done,” he said. Those 14 and all the other front-line workers want the city to remember that, as one worker put it, “we answer the bell every time it’s rung, in all sorts of weather and we get the job done.”

— By Bob Throndsen

36 Replies to “COVID frustration and fatigue impacting City of Edmonds front-line workers”

  1. If it’s not “safe” for other city employees to stop working from home then these employees who don’t have the option should absolutely continue to receive hazard pay. I don’t think anyone should be surprised that they don’t trust our mayor to have their backs. What has he done to earn their trust?

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  2. These crews are always bringing their best, everyday and they do a great job, as well. As a Councilmember, we get emails from residents describing when our work crews have really made a difference.

    It’s been tough during Covid, for those who work out of trucks, and with little flexibility in their schedules. The pandemic has made work-life balance especially tricky with family life. That can’t be easy.

    I really appreciate them putting in the sidewalk ramps and keeping the roads free from potholes and other hazards. I’m sure we all appreciate the workers at the wastewater treatment plant. And, they keep up the larger planted areas along the roads so beautifully.

    Your work and sacrifices are noted; and your work makes a difference and it shows in how Edmonds operates for all of us, and our visitors.

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  3. This city would not be the same without our public works “on the ground” staff! They respond at all hours and often work in dangerous conditions, particularly during the stormy winter months. Many are life-long residents of our city and surrounding area and they take pride in their work. Feeling acknowledged, respected and cared for by those that they report to is critical for their well-being. Hopefully, their concerns will be taken seriously and progress made to create safer working conditions.

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  4. One of the many concerns about the Mayor’s Bias/Discrimination/Hate Portal is what the City would do with the information.

    This article provides a window into that:

    Patrick Doherty, the city’s director of economic development, reviews the hotline tips. I asked if the city would investigate the complaint. He told me that some of the complaint was not true, and some was due to misunderstandings, so “no further investigation is necessary,” he said. “We know what we required of various units of employees.”

    I believe City Government counts on citizens to lose interest in a controversial matter like the Portal as time passes. Hopefully this statement by Patrick Doherty will reinvigorate citizen interest in the Mayor’s Portal.

    Should Patrick Doherty or any individual have this level of authority related to complaints submitted to the Mayor’s Bias/Discrimination/Hate Portal? How are complaints vetted and handled? What are the related policies and procedures? Is there any type of due process or is it simply left to Patrick Doherty to decide what is true and isn’t true?

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    1. Ken, I have a FOIA on the portal. I read the complaint and it was quite serious. The complaint can accurately be described as being about bias against the Edmonds City Servant Class. White collar workers are being treated differently than blue collar workers. There are two COVID-19 standards. We have a caste system in Edmonds. Even if Patrick (who is a sworn law enforcement officer and judge apparently) deems that an aspect of the complaint is not true, the complaint was made in Good Faith and must be investigated. This is a class action looking for a place to happen.

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  5. Other jobs that can be done remotely should not be forced to be in person because one department cannot. I work remotely 80% of my time. My husband is a frontline essential worker. My mother is a essential frontline nurse in the COVID trenches–she cannot be remote either. They both do not get paid more just due to the fact they can’t work remote since their job cannot be accomplished that way. We are all fatigued with this pandemic and worry about our family that cannot work from home but it is what it is and if someone can do their job remotely they should be able to do that. This pandemic is something the majority of us have never had to live through before and many of us are all making sacrifices. I feel for the frustrations, we all are frustrated and blaming some employees won’t resolve those feelings. Making sure safety protocols and proper PPE is used and worn and protocols are followed is what should be done.

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  6. The work done by these city workers is extremely important and essential to our community. And I don’t doubt there are probably inequities that need to be addressed. But there is a glaring omission to this discussion— the topic of vaccinations. This discussion sounds like one that took place last year in pre-vaccine times!

    What percent of these workers are still unvaccinated? If they care about protecting themselves from COVID, the vaccine is the best protection they can get. And instead of blaming city administrators and council members for lack of strong protection, they have total control over the most effective form of protection.

    I encourage them (and everyone) to read Deborah Kilgore’s letter to the editor in this edition of MEN, regarding the importance of protecting oneself and everyone around you.

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  7. “Essential workers“ should only be required to do work that is actually “essential“ during the worst pandemic the world has faced in 100 years. No one should be forced to risk dying themselves of the virus or taking the Delta variant home and killing their love ones unintentionally to fill a pothole.

    The city has failed these workers by not implementing commonsense solutions, such as reduced hours (with NO reduction in pay), alternating and solo shifts, plexiglass barriers, etc. I hope the Teamsters schools the city on how to respect its most vital workers. As an attorney, I can verify that the people sitting in air-conditioned office is staring at a computer screen all day are not as vital as the people out there actually doing the backbreaking work of keeping our city functioning.

    And anyone who dares criticizes these heroic workers can go out and fill a pothole themselves, as far as I’m concerned. The glaring hypocrisy of the political establishment needs to be called out. I can guarantee you that none of them would tolerate their children working in these risky conditions during COVID.

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    1. From this article:
      _________________
      Patrick Doherty, the city’s director of economic development, reviews the hotline tips. I asked if the city would investigate the complaint. He told me that some of the complaint was not true, and some was due to misunderstandings, so “no further investigation is necessary,” he said. “We know what we required of various units of employees.”
      ________________

      This is pretty brazenly dismissal of all of the concerns of vital city employees by Mr. Patrick Doherty. This really could have been handled in a better way.

      There have been a number of issues with the professional conduct of Mr. Doherty.

      As an example, consider this article on MEN.

      City council finishes year amid accusations of falsehoods, mansplaining and name-calling
      https://myedmondsnews.com/2019/12/city-council-finishes-year-amid-accusations-of-falsehoods-mansplaining-and-name-calling/

      First Mr. Doherty proposed the audacious plan to get rid of Edmonds business licenses if they did not pay into it the BID (or ED). Matt Richardson noted that when he looked into the issue, he found that the BID program “is illegally assessing taxes. ” When he asked Mr. Doherty about this pretty serious problem with the program, he was told that “the businesses that didn’t want to play ball could move to Lynnwood.”

      There have been serious accusations of bullying and a hostile workforce at Edmonds. Including a serious one against Mayor Nelson that caused the resignation of the former communications director. Given the patterns I have seen, I would include Mr. Doherty in that problem as well. Frankly I think we should have a labor and industries review into the work conduct of both Mayor Nelson, and the economic development director Patrick Doherty.

      Edmonds Public Works Department workers are critical for the function of this city, and we should take their concerns seriously.

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      1. Patrick Doherty and Phil Williams are both nice people. I suggest that you go to City Hall and meet them or set up a phone call with either of them before throwing them under the bus because of the mismanagement of our political leaders.

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        1. Jenna, you’re suggesting that people go to City Hall and meet w/ ppl regarding a complaint about the 2nd Floor Edmonds not showing up for work, gaming the CV-19 response for personal gain.

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        2. Chris Williams, that’s how I first got involved in local politics in Edmonds. I contacted Mayor Earling to ask him to sign onto a letter supporting the Paris Accords after the Trump Administration pulled out. Much to my surprise, Mayor Earling not only responded to my email, he had his executive assistant, Carolyn LaFave, set up an in person meeting between us and then appointed me to the Mayor’s Climate Protection Committee so that I could begin volunteering to help shape the cities policy on climate change.

          If anyone doesn’t like the way that Phil Williams and Patrick Doherty are doing their jobs, they should just call or email either of them and let them know. But remember that both of the directors are at the mercy of the mayor and the council.

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        3. Please respect others who have had different experiences with city officials than you may have had. I am happy to meet with you, tell you of my experiences since 2005 and show you supporting documentation.

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        4. Ken Reidy, I definitely respect that other people do not get treated the same way that I do when I contact city officials. Please do share your experiences with me, either privately or publicly. My email is jnand@fortuna-law.com.

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        5. I’ll provide a public example and then I will email you more examples in the days ahead. On August 28, 2021, I emailed a section of the January 27, 2009 City Council Meeting Minutes that discussed the creation of the City of Edmonds Disaster Recovery Plan. I emailed it to the full City Council, City Council’s Executive Assistant, Mayor Nelson and his Assistant, City Directors Patrick Doherty, Phil Williams, Dave Turley and the City Attorney. The minutes are too lengthy to include in my post, but they are easily found on the City’s website.

          I emailed the following and received no response from anybody:

          As you read it (the minutes), please consider whether citizens of Edmonds are protected by a current AND functional Comprehensive Emergency Management Plan (CEMP), a CEMP that is practiced regularly.

          I can find no evidence that Ordinance 3724 adopting the City of Edmonds Disaster Recovery Plan and establishing the City of Edmonds Disaster Recovery Task Force was ever repealed. Please provide the current membership of the Edmonds Disaster Recovery Task Force. Are all members aware that they are members of this Task Force? Who is responsible for maintaining the City of Edmonds Disaster Recovery Plan and making sure it is current? For example, in 2021: Should the Safety and Disaster Coordinator now be a member of the Disaster Recovery Task Force? ESCA disbanded in 2015 but ESCA is referenced in the City of Edmonds Disaster Recovery Plan.

          Who is currently the Disaster Recovery Coordinator? Do they know they have this responsibility and are they prepared to perform their duties?

          The first WHEREAS in Ordinance 3724 states that the City is vulnerable to various technological and natural hazards such as earthquakes, flooding, severe weather, wind, accidents and acts of terrorism, resulting in major disasters causing substantial loss of life and property.

          On January 27, 2009, former Mayor Gary Haakenson commented the Disaster Recovery Plan would be invaluable following an earthquake which this area would undoubtedly experience.

          Thank you in advance for reading the following, providing the information requested above and for answering the questions asked above.

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    2. Well said. And true. Thankyou. And now that I see what is really happening. I will or ask my husband to rake our street drain here on the cities property. For the workers…not for this city govmt. Pot holes can wait…good grief.
      Sorry Edmonds city workers…just remember….

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  8. Even Taco Bell workers go to work, but not our government. It’s sort of like the world is splitting into two; the elite and the masked.

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  9. Well put Ms. Nand. I bet these guys and gals would be tough enough to have Council meetings in person and go into the office, if their roles were reversed. The fact they felt the need to remain anonymous tells you all you need to know about our city management right now.

    Hate portal indeed. If someone told me to be keeper of the portal, I’d tell them where to put it.

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    1. I seem to remember Vivian Olson protesting about returning to virtual sessions. As a military veteran, I think Vivian understands how bad it looks for leaders to protect themselves while exposing their workers to a lethal danger like Covid. Of course, the amount of open bullying and contempt that Vivian gets from her coworkers on the council is rather astonishing, so I’m not surprised that they refused to listen to her.

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  10. Does anyone want to work for leaders who aren’t willing to put in the same effort? If these workers truly felt they were at risk, what amount of hazard pay would be adequate to compensate for their potential deaths? The lack of respect for labor in this country is mind-numbing.

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  11. Literally each day more than a billion working class people on this planet get up in the morning and go out their door to work. The disconnect between them and elites during this pandemic is startling.

    The handling of Patrick Doherty who apparently is the Director at the “Ministry of Truth”, overseeing the city’s portal hotline shows how much it is an ill-conceived idea.

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    1. Actually, I believe that the portal is the product of the Diversity Committee’s recommendation, it is just Patrick Doherty‘s job to implement it.

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      1. The Diversity Commission never voted to make a portal recommendation. Details were provided about this on My Edmonds News in late July. This was a unilateral act without commission recommendation or a city council vote to approve.

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      2. Jenna,

        The Diversity Committee discussed the option of the portal, but never officially recommended it. Doherty took the idea that was discussed and implemented it at the behest of Mayor Nelson. I’m surprised you didn’t follow that issue carefully, since you were referenced in an early complaint filed by Matt Richardson, as a test. Also, the directors are “at the mercy” of Mayor Nelson only, NOT City Council. The mayor is the executive branch of our government, overseeing city administration (thus the directors) and is responsible for enforcement of our laws and ordinances.

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        1. Joan Bloom, if you don’t think that the directors are “at the mercy” of the council, I guess you missed what happened between Mary Ann Hardie and Diane Buckshnis in 2019.

          Also, I take care of my elderly and disabled parents, run two businesses, and am active in the community. I was never contacted nor did I ever give my consent to be mentioned in Matt Richardson’s offensive, facetious complaint calling me a “victim” because I’m a woman of color involved in politics. I don’t have the time for shallow people with too much time on their hands. I am working too hard to take care of my family, my clients, and our tenants.

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        2. Joan, You and I are oft politically diametric, but you are a champion of the Sunshine and open governance. #SuperRespect

          In jest, I do not consent to being mentioned in MEN comments, especially if I decide to run for office or become a public figure in some other regard. I’ll have a ton of time on my hands once I can get down from this cross. Just not right now.

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  12. If I were told to be any part of this portal fiasco, I would say no and start looking for employment elsewhere. Some times just call for growing a back bone. This is one of those times I should think. If you are willing to run it, you own it.

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  13. I’m pretty sure that the Diversity Committee just an ad hoc committee of citizens. Patrick Doherty is a City Director appointed by the mayor and confirmed by the City Council. Ultimately the elected Mayor, and the city’s directors are responsible for the local government under our laws, not ad hoc committees. Someone can correct me if I’m wrong.

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    1. The Diversity Commission was formed several years ago by the City Council. It is an official city commission. And the members are appointed by the council and mayor.

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  14. Snitch lines and website portals to report actual crimes like game poaching and drunk driving are one thing. Snitch lines to report someone’s opinion of what might be a hate crime is totally something else. Hitler youth were taught to turn in friends and family that weren’t being anti Jewish and pro Aryan race enough. I find this scary and repulsive stuff.

    The concerned public works employees were smart to go to the free press, but not smart to give this hate portal any credence whatsoever. That just enables bad public policies from people like Nelson and his subserviant appointees.

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    1. Clint,

      I think saying they weren’t smart to give the hate portal any credence is a little harsh, given that one of the earlier reports to the portal was about a city employee. He talked about the report and the stress it caused him on myedmondsnews. I’m guessing these employees thought this was the best, perhaps only, way to get Nelson’s attention about the bias/discrimination they believe has been demonstrated towards them.

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  15. So true. Open your eyes all of Edmonds…it is all of you we are fighting for. I am a Centrist yet I see what Socialist cities do. You should too. It right in front of your faces. Try enjoying Seattle now…impossible for most…even the ones who are leaning with the progressive left are having doubts. We should pay attention to that.

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  16. Jenna,

    I was genuinely surprised that you held the Diversity Commission responsible for Mayor Nelson’s bias/hate portal since you were present at the July 27, 2021 Council meeting when many citizens expressed serious, legitimate concerns about the portal. In my comments at that Council meeting, I quoted Patrick Doherty’s response to Ken Reidy’s email questions about the portal.

    “The idea for the bias/hate reporting portal came out of preliminary discussions among Commissioners – not a formal recommendation. These discussions led me, as staff, to discuss this idea internally and we decided that it was a good idea that we could implement without further ado. We simply added to the existing reporting portal on our website a new category: incidents of bias, discrimination and/or hate.”

    In my experience, it is not the city Directors who are “at the mercy” of Council. It is the CITIZENS, and in this example Council as well, who are at the mercy of Directors who chose to ignore the codified decision making process. The process should have been that the Diversity Commission made a formal recommendation which was thoroughly vetted by Council, with citizen input and preferably a public hearing. IF approved by Council, the portal then could have been implemented by the Mayor and his staff. Circumventing that process is disrespectful to all citizens, to the citizen volunteers on the Diversity Commission, and to the Council.

    As for Mary Ann Hardie’s resignation, there are as many interpretations of what happened as there are people who followed the issue closely. Given that you were running for Council against Diane Buckshnis at the time, I’m sure you can agree that your perspective of what happened is uniquely your own.

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  17. Matt,

    I greatly appreciate your expression of respect. Thank you. I also appreciate your “In jest” comment. It had me laughing out loud.

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  18. Great reporting, Bob. I do think the Parks and Recreation folks might be included in a future article. They had a really tough time throughout the pandemic, cleaning public restrooms, etc. They are probably not feeling greatly relieved at this point, either.

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