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Saturday, October 18, 1997 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Some 2,500 Temps To Get $24 Million -- King County Settles Class- Action Lawsuit

Seattle Times Staff Reporter

By next summer some 2,500 King County workers denied benefits over the past eight years could find a hefty check in the mail.

They will share in the $24 million settlement of a class-action suit announced yesterday by King County Executive Ron Sims and attorneys for the workers.

"For a number of years the county engaged in a sad episode of employment practices," said Sims, who had long fought to end what he called a pervasive practice of hiring temporary and part-time workers and denying them benefits.

The money, due in a lump sum, will not raise taxes or fees, said Sims. But it could cost some temporary and part-time workers their jobs should the county decide to consolidate some positions into permanent, full-time ones.

To pay the settlement the county will use $15 million from its current expense fund, or local taxes, and the other $9 million from a variety of funds, from the King County Airport to roads, said Pat Steel, county budget director.

In addition, she said, it will cost the county from $2.6 million to $3.6 million a year to pay the added costs of providing benefits to the workers now classified as temporary and part-time. She said benefits cost the county about $6,000 a year for each worker.

The settlement came just as the workers were preparing to take their case to court on Monday. Negotiations to settle the lawsuit had been going on for four months, Steel said.

The class-action suit mushroomed from a complaint by 22 county workers that they were denied medical, vacation, holiday and other benefits paid other workers.

One of the first to sue the county was Michael Logan, a cashier at a King County dumpsite, who tired of working long hours for no benefits - despite working nearly two years for the county.

"I believed to the core of my soul this was the right thing," said Logan, who now has a permanent job with the county. "It's a testament to the original people who started it. This is dedicated to the whole hidden work force that has done a good job for the county for years."

County officials acknowledged yesterday that settling the lawsuit would be much less expensive than facing a court judgment, where, by law, the county could have faced double the amount of damages, or $48 million.

It hasn't been determined yet how much each worker will receive, but officials hope the money will be distributed by next July.

The settlement must still be approved by the County Council, which is expected to go along with it, and the courts.

"This appears to be a reasonably good deal, considering the exposure," said Councilman Rob McKenna, a Bellevue Republican. "We didn't have much choice."

Chris Vance, a Kent Republican who is chairman of the County Budget Committee, said he will not vote on the agreement because, as a former temporary worker, he stands to receive money in the settlement.

But he said the new policies generated by the settlement are bound to cost the county more money. "The reason managers chose to hire so many temps was to save money so we've got to assume that going to fewer temporaries is, by definition, going to cost the county more money," said Vance.

Steel said the county departments are being asked over the next three weeks to review the work that temporaries and part-time employees are doing to see whether they can fill existing permanent vacancies. She said some people will lose their jobs, but couldn't say how many.

Before May 1 the temporary and part-time workers affected by the lawsuit will be given hiring preference in filling vacancies.

The biggest impact will be felt in the Public Health Department, where - because many workers are funded by grants - 23 percent of its workers are temporary. Steel said the county will now charge the benefits against the grant money.

Among the biggest winners in the suit is the law firm Bendich, Strobaugh & Strong, which is asking for 22 percent of the settlement amount, as well as some additional costs.

"This was an attempt to stop the past practice of hiring people as temps when they're really regular employees," said attorney Judith Bendich. "We hope this serves as a shining beacon for the rest of the area."

Susan Gilmore's phone message number is 206-464-2054. Her e-mail address is: sugi-new@seatimes.com

Copyright (c) 1997 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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