Some Ore. state workers to take strike vote

KLAMATH FALLS, Ore. - They're bargaining with the state of Oregon again Monday, but some state government workers will take a vote on Tuesday that could authorize a strike, just in case their standoff comes to that.

Contracts for about 19,000 workers in a variety of Department of Human Services (DHS) jobs have expired, from people who issue drivers licenses to those who investigate child abuse.

The two sides are reportedly close on the pay issue, but workers are concerned about the state hiring contractors and chipping away at health care benefits.

Jill Sipes, DHS community development coordinator in Klamath Falls, said they are willing to keep bargaining.

"Even if we authorize the contract team to go on strike, we are still open to negotiations with the state, absolutely," Sipes said. "We do not want to impact our communities, you know, by not serving them. We definitely want to be on the job."

The workers are members of SEIU Local 503. Sipes said many have incomes low enough that they would qualify for state or federal benefits.

To the heckler at their informational picketing event who called her and fellow workers "parasites," Sipes said it's best to shrug it off.

Most people interact with state government, she said, and know that workers provide many necessary services, from home-care for seniors to qualifying low-income families for benefits.

"We're serving over 7,000 families with food stamps in this town; we've got over 260 children that we're dealing with in child welfare," Sipes said. "I guarantee I'll find somebody in their family tree, or a friend they dearly care for, who has worked with a state worker at one point in their life."

With unpaid furlough days and the state freezing their "pay steps" or periodic raises in recent years, she added, they feel they've done plenty to help Oregon balance the tight state budget.

Chris Thomas of Oregon News Service prepared this report.

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