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WAKE UP AND SMELL THE COFFEE

An Examiner for Washington’s Public Employment Relations Commission (PERC) has recently determined that free coffee provided by a public employer to corrections employees at the employer’s detention facilities is a mandatory subject of bargaining. However, the Examiner also determined that the employer’s actions, in this case, did not amount to an unfair labor practice (ULP).

The evidence showed that the employer had a long standing practice of providing corrections employees, at the employer’s detention facilities, with free coffee. The employer decided to stop providing free coffee to its employees in 2013, citing financial considerations. This decision affected two groups of correction employees—one group was eligible for interest arbitration while the other was not.

The Examiner found that the employer gave the labor organizations representing the two groups of correction employees notice of its intent to discontinue the practice. The Examiner further found that after receiving the notice, the employer and the two labor organizations representing the correction employees discussed the employer’s decision on a number of occasions.

The employer and the two labor organizations were unable to reach an agreement on the employer’s decision to stop providing free coffee. After being unable to reach an agreement, the labor organizations filed ULP complaints alleging that the practice was discontinued before they were given an opportunity to bargain.

The good news for the correction employees is that the Examiner found, based upon the unique circumstances facing the correction employees, that the employer’s decision to stop the practice impacted wages and working conditions and that free coffee was a mandatory subject of bargaining. Specifically, the Examiner stated:

“[E]mployer-provided coffee is a mandatory subject of bargaining.  Removal of the employer-provided coffee more heavily impacts the wages, hours, and working conditions of employees when balanced with the employer’s desire to cut costs and its prerogative to stop providing the long-standing employee benefit.”

The bad news for the corrections officers is that the Examiner also held that the employer did not commit an ULP. This holding was based upon the Examiner concluding that: (a) the employer had provided the labor organizations “with sufficient notice and the opportunity to bargain in good faith over the coffee issue”, and, (b) when the the parties were unable to come to an agreement and had reached impasse, the group that was not eligible for interest arbitration did not request any further bargaining and the group that was eligible for interest arbitration did not submit the issue to interest arbitration.

The case is King County, Decision 12451 (PECB, 2015). Examiner Claire Nickleberry’s Findings of Fact, Conclusions of Law, and Order was issued on November 5, 2015 and can be found at http://perc.wa.gov/databases/ULP/12451.htm.

[Posted 11/10/15]