City employee Sarah Kowaleski speaks at yesterdays hearing.
  • City employee Sarah Kowaleski speaks at yesterday's hearing.
Want a notion of how inconsistent the city's treatment of its own employees can be? Cue up the video of yesterday's Portland City Council meeting.

About an hour in, you'll see the council take up and pass a progressive policy most Portlanders can get behind: Qualified city employees now get six weeks of paid parental leave, available any time within one year of a new child's "birth, adoption, or placement." The suggestion was brought forward by Commissioner Amanda Fritz, who in 2013 also shepherded a city-wide paid sick leave policy through council.

As witnesses at yesterday's hearing noted, it's nowhere near as strong a policy as some European governments, or even some private employers in the US, offer. But the policy's being touted as a way to help job performance and making the city a more-attractive employer.

"This policy is good for families and kids and it's good for employers," Commissioner Nick Fish said at the hearing.

That good work stands in contrast to the beginning of yesterday's meeting, when Portland Parks and Recreation employees who work in Portland's public community centers filed in to plead with City Council for a raise.

As we report in this week's print edition, these so-called "casual" workers often make less than $15 an hour—the absolute minimum a full-time city employee makes. They're also limited in how much they can work, and denied benefits (like the new parental leave policy Portland just passed).

The workers came to council yesterday bearing a petition, signed by more than 300 people, asking the city to offer an easier path for these workers to gain union protections—complete with higher wages and benefits.

They've got reason to hope, after Fritz and Mayor Charlie Hales said in October they'd both support such a plan. And the workers made a compelling argument.

Sarah Kowaleski, an employee at Multnomah Arts Center has testified before council before, explaining that she relies on food stamps to get by. She returned yesterday. "I not only connect the public with social services, but I need them myself," Kowaleski said. "I have years of service to the city and years of empty cupboards."

Will Zeigler, another casual employee who's confined to a wheelchair, described the "overwhelming" expenses he's incurred without benefits.

"I've spent my life in and out of medical debt," he said. "We have the chance to tackle a large problem that has been around as long as most can remember."

The workers are pushing for city council to introduce a policy by December 16 that would voluntarily acknowledge many casual recreation workers as fitting into existing labor contract with the union Laborers' Local 483, which already represents a segment of recreation employees.

That demand has created difficulties in the union's existing bargaining with the city. The union's pushing for a firm policy before that bargaining wraps up, but the city's Bureau of Human Resources says it'll have to wait.

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"I can guarantee the council is in favor of non-represented employees having representation," HR Director Anna Kanwit tells the Mercury. But she argues it's too early to say how that should be done, and that more groundwork needs to be laid before the recreational workers see the benefits city council's been happy to bestow on the rest of its employees.

That's not an argument that's likely to be palatable to the union, which as accused Kanwit of "backtracking."

For his part, Hales offered no assurances on Wednesday he was ready to act. He thanked the workers for showing up, and moved on to other business.

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