Temporary food workers at the Oregon Zoo—players in a story in this week’s paper about a hole in the city's new policy on paid sick leave—just took a big step that could make their jobs a little easier to handle.

Representatives at Laborers' International Union of North America Local 483 confirm they've recently filed a union request on behalf of the beleaguered zoo temps.

The paperwork was filed Wednesday with the state Employment Relations Board (ERB). It marks the first public step—and tacit acknowledgement—of what’s been a months-long behind-the-scenes effort to organize. But the ERB filing is still just one tentative step in what could be a long fight.

“We will now have to convince ERB that the workers are a coherent bargaining unit," ” says Local 483 representative Megan Hise. "This will decide who will vote in the election."

Hise says the legal ball is now in ERB’s court. ERB must decide whether the workers, and which ones, should get the right to vote in an election. This decision will involve a mediated back and forth with Local 483 and Metro, which runs the zoo. During this exchange, Metro, if it chooses to, can argue against how the union has defined its bargaining unit—in effect picking and choosing who among the food temps should gets to vote for union representation.

Naturally, Local 483 will also put in its two cents. Then ERB will decide how the vote will look. If the union gets its way, 149 temporary caterers and kitchen and service workers will be folded into an existing contract the union already has with Metro.

And the whole time the above-mentioned wonky exchange is happening, Local 483, in an effort to keep up momentum, will continue to rally the temps around specific demands. According to Local 483 organizer Toby Green, one of these demands will be paid sick leave.

As we reported in this week’s paper, Metro workers have been left out of the city’s new paid sick leave ordinance and some aren’t happy about it.

Metro has about 500 to 700 temps, and none gets paid sick leave. At least not yet. The American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees Council 75 is currently bargaining with Metro to get paid sick leave for janitors at the convention and expo centers. And for zoo temps, paid sick leave has been a big concern and is expected to be a priority for the union in upcoming negotiations.

Zoo temps told the Mercury they come to work sick all the time. Some of these sick workers, we were told, are food handlers who can easily pass on their illness to zoo patrons. Union reps say giving workers paid sick leave will benefit zoo workers and the public alike.

Other demands, according to Green, include some kind of deal over parking costs (temps don’t get free parking at the zoo), bringing back raises (zoo temps haven’t had them in years), and lifting the 1,040-hour limit temps are currently allowed to work.

As for the union vote, that could take place anywhere from a couple of weeks to a couple of months from now—which, for a temporary workforce able to work only a limited number of hours, could be a problem. Especially if the process drags out. (Not surprisingly, the filing falls not long after the annual renewal of those 1040-hour contracts). But for now Local 483 says it has the worker support it needs. In fact the union waited to file until a super-majority of workers, or about 75 percent, signed cards saying they wanted the union. Still, Green says, he suspects Metro will drag its feet.

“Their goal is going to be to drag it down and wear us out," says Green. “I’m hoping I’m wrong and Metro says, ‘Okay, let’s have a vote.’”