City settles `permatemp' suit
Seattle Times Eastside bureau
In a tentative agreement between temporary workers and the city, Bellevue will pay more than $700,000 to settle a class-action lawsuit filed by so-called "permatemps" who worked sometimes for years without paid vacations, health insurance and other benefits.
The agreement first must be approved by the Bellevue City Council, which will consider the settlement at its Monday meeting. It also must be approved by a King County Superior Court judge and approved again after comments by plaintiffs.
While involving far fewer workers, the Bellevue lawsuit mirrors suits brought against Microsoft and the governments of Seattle and King County. Last month, the county agreed to pay $18 million in back wages, benefits and legal fees to settle a 1995 suit by "contract workers" who said they did the same work as regular staff but without equal compensation.
Bellevue maintains its use of temporary workers was lawful and in keeping with common practices at the time but decided to settle the suit rather than spend money on more litigation, said acting City Manager Linda Barton.
"Many of the longer-term workers covered by this settlement were hired for temporary assignments that were extended," Barton said. "Others were welcomed back for a series of temporary or multiple part-time assignments. Some of them were subsequently hired as regular city employees."
Nonetheless, as part of the proposed settlement, Bellevue would change its practice so that people who work there for more than 12 consecutive months would no longer be classified as temporary workers. The city also agrees to review its work for each of the next three years.
The city said the settlement was for $750,000; plaintiffs' attorneys said $719,000. It was not clear last night which sum was correct.
Plaintiffs' attorney Stephen Strong cited what he called two "significant things" in the proposed agreement:
"Just calling a person a `temp worker' doesn't make it so. And the employer has to re-examine the facts on a regular basis" to ensure workers are treated fairly.
About 100 past and present city employees are expected to be eligible for the settlement money, which they may see by early next year, Strong said.
The suit presented a scenario that has become common in the workplace: Employers hiring workers through temporary agencies, whether simply to staff short-term projects and cover absences, or as a way to save money by not paying the costly benefits given to regular employees.
Debbie Jordan worked for Bellevue in administrative positions off and on for six years starting in 1991, most of that full time. Jordan was employed through a temporary-staffing agency for most of that time, then hired by the city as a "temporary hourly employee."
In both cases, Jordan said, she never received health insurance, paid vacation or sick leave.
She sued in 1998 after being told to train another hourly employee to perform her duties because her job was being phased out.
Jordan now works at a Home Depot on the Eastside. The lawsuit's two other named plaintiffs, Rob Bell and Gaje Wagner, still work for the city.
The permatemp issue has made a name, and money, for the Seattle law firm of Bendich, Stobaugh & Strong that represented the Bellevue employees.
The firm settled multimillion-dollar cases against the city of Seattle and, before last month's $18 million settlement with King County, reached a settlement of $24 million in 1997 for 2,100 other county employees.
The firm also represents workers in the high-profile case against Microsoft.
Bellevue employees who worked more than half time for at least 12 months as temps since September 1992 would be entitled to receive money based on the number of hours they worked each year, according to the proposal.
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