Time and punishment

Minutes turn into days at the county's 911 unit.

PUNCTUALITY NOT ONLY counts, it's a way of life—and tardiness a potential source of punishment—for King County emergency operators and dispatchers. With questions of accountability and misconduct, including felony crimes, kicking up a scandal at the Seattle Police Department, stiff penalties for office tardiness might seem comparably overreaching. Nonetheless, when a supervisor at the King County Sheriff's Office 911 unit says "Don't be a minute late," it's meant literally: Communications Section employees face the loss of up to two weeks' pay for not being in their seats when the bell rings.

County documents show, for example, when one 911 operator arrived for work at 11:01pm—a minute late—his supervisor immediately filed an Internal Investigations Unit complaint. A brief investigation ensued, a computer printout confirmed the violation, the complaint was sustained, and the worker lost a day's pay.

The penalty climbs with successive late check-ins by workers. A previously tardy worker who arrived 11 minutes late on another date got a three-day suspension; one who arrived 20 minutes late was docked five days; and an operator who reported 18 minutes late in March was written up for a 10-day suspension—essentially half of the $2,487 to $3,241 monthly pay range for com specialists. Even an employee who arrived early but signed on at the wrong workstation was suspended five days.

To some it sounds at least counterproductive, if not draconian. "The police dispatchers we count upon to keep us safe," says community activist John Hoffman, who obtained the internal investigation documents, are "going to arrive already stressed out about being late and then face more stress dealing with emergency calls."

But the county's operations director, Jean Best, says the employees' union agreed to the discipline. "These are people who must be in their chairs ready to work when their shifts begin. They are relieving people who cannot leave until someone takes their place. The emergency calls come in regardless of whether phones are staffed."

Discipline is based on the number of times a worker is late, not on the amount of time. "If someone was suspended for one day, it was because they were late five times," Best says. "If someone is suspended for 10 days, it means they have progressed through successive stages of discipline to the point where they have been late eight times."

Dustin Frederick, business manager of the workers' union, Local 519, thinks the policy has "worked extremely well in resolving a very difficult morale/operational problem" in the unit. "One of the maxims is you don't relieve late." Employees, who start each new year with a clean slate, can also appeal the disciplinary action.

But does the punishment fit the crime? For comparison, a county sheriff's officer recently found to have failed to write up crime reports in 13 felony and misdemeanor cases in a five-month period got a three-day suspension—same as the operator who arrived 11 minutes late.

Perhaps the inequity is in the limited application. Last week several members of the County Council showed up an hour late for a meeting. If the tardiness policy were countywide and they lost two weeks pay, care to guess how long the rule would last?

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