Call waiting . . . and waiting

Twice lately I've had the same weird experience—once on the sidewalk on Broadway and once in a Safeway somewhere in the black hole of Highway 99 between Lynnwood and Everett. I went to use a pay phone, dialed my number—and got zilch, until my coins clattered back out. After repeated tries I called the operator (U S West in one case, GTE in the other) to ask what gives and was told the phone was blocked from making outgoing calls at night—except I could still use a phone card or 800 number at the Safeway phone. How come? I asked. "The police asked us to do it. Talk to them about it."

I did. Seattle Police rep Carmen Best says narcotics detectives occasionally (twice in the last year) ask U S West to disable certain pay phones' receipt of incoming calls. They act at the request of businesses or residents affronted by the people who hang around those phones waiting to receive calls (and who may be dealers taking orders on an untraceable line). But she's not aware of any blocking of out-going calls.

Lynnwood Police Sgt. Steven Bredeson says his department likewise has incoming calls blocked on some pay phones, to stymie dealers and juvenile booze parties. But, he adds, "I would be scared to death to have a phone that doesn't ring out. What happens if someone's car breaks down and he needs to call Martha for a ride?" Can't that someone use a phone card? "I don't have a phone card," replies Bredeson.

Though these hamstrung phones can still ring 911, blocking other outgoing calls may nevertheless put people in danger, wasting critical moments in an emergency. Not to mention children who need to call for a ride, parents who need to call home . . . you name it. And blocking only coin calls is a special burden on children and the poor, who are less likely to have phone cards or funds to buy them (not to mention cellular phones).

Even blocking incoming calls may afflict the innocent. As another Lynn-wood PD staffer puts it, "It's too bad for the poor schmuck who has a flat tire and says, 'Honey, call me back'—and it doesn't ring through."

Adding injury, at least some blocked phones bear no notice of their disablement—which ought to be required. Maybe businesses that get nearby pay phones blocked should have to provide free calls to non-criminals, and post the fact.

One thing's sure—jamming phones won't deter the baddies, who will just work a little harder to find working ones. On Broadway, I crossed the street and found a phone that would call out. I'm sure any dealers thereabouts figured that out long ago.

Giving permatemps a "break"

Temp workers howled last July when Microsoft instituted a requirement that they leave the company for 31 days after completing assignments lasting one year or more. That may be just the first in a series of measures directed at the company's "permatemp" problems.

Longtime temps, who nominally work for go-between agencies but may work at Microsoft for years, have clamored and in some cases sued successfully for the benefits and stock deals that full-status employees receive. The 31-day "break-in-service" (a.k.a. "layoff") was meant, according to a confidential internal record of a presentation to Microsoft managers by Contingent Staffing Group director Sharon Decker, to: "ensure we are using temporaries for true temporary assignments"; "reduce our dependence on long-term assignments"; "address morale issues that inevitably occur when long-term agency temporaries begin to feel like 'part of the team'"; and guard against Microsoft managers taking on "management responsibility" for "agency" temps.

Now the Washington Alliance of Technology Workers, an incipient union, claims Microsoft is "considering" increasing the mandatory break "to 90 days or more." According to the meeting record, which was released by WashTech, Decker noted, "It is logical to assume that the length of break in service will increase in the future." Wash-Tech founder Mike Blain claims that Microsoft managers, though not the public, were told this move is intended "to reduce their legal vulnerability."

"There are no plans right now for that kind of change," responds Microsoft spokesman Dan Leach. "We are still evaluating the July 1998 changes. We regularly evaluate the [break-in-service] policy." Read the tea leaves as you will. But however long the mandatory break, is the motive to reduce legal exposure? "We look at cost, legal, and efficiency issues," says Leach, "but it would be incorrect to say one factor is driving all this stuff."

But is it necessarily efficient to put workhorses out to pasture, or drive them off to other pastures, every 31 or 90 days?

Public processed

Dispatches from this state's annals of public process (for whose practitioners less is indeed often more): The Land Use Study Commission released its 48-page draft final report on a statewide consolidated land use code—an important if unsexy subject—on October 28 and allowed just seven days for it to be digested and disseminated before a sole public meeting on it, in Seattle. (Comment was also taken at a video conference between four other cities a week later.) . . . The Energy Facility Site Evaluation Council follows the emerging bureaucratic fashion and holds a multistation "open house" rather than public hearing on the proposed Olympic Cross-Cascade Pipeline's draft environmental impact statement. Such open houses make activists howl (and sure enough, pipeline opponents are howling); they prefer hearings at which they can declaim and exchange views, and make sure the empowered bodies (rather than lowly aides) hear them. Still, as EFSEC manager Allen Fiksdal notes, open houses have advantages: More people, including shy ones, get to comment, they can get their easy questions right away, and they don't have to listen all night while other blowhards blow. Fiksdal also notes tellingly, "After a while with hearings, you don't get the response you're looking for." Isn't that the point?

Ethics aren't their own reward

Ancil Payne, CEO of King Broadcasting in its higher-minded days under the Bullitts, continues the tradition: He's given $106,000 to endow the University of Oregon J-school's "Ancil Payne Awards for Meritorious Journalism." In a statement sent by UO, Payne hopes that "illuminating [and rewarding] ethical stands taken by individual journalists" will encourage "better ethical practices throughout the profession." Or, as the press release puts it, "New Award to Reward Ethical Journalism Practices." Right on—but the notion still gives pause: Isn't "ethical practice" the baseline in journalism, as in every field? Is it now so rare, in fact or expectation, that we have to reward it?

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