University Accused of Employing "Permatemps"

December 24, 2002 ( - The University of Washington stands accused of denying health-care benefits to hundreds of its hospital workers by simply declaring them temporary employees.

The charges, leveled by the Washington Federation of State Employees, were based on a report by the Center for a Changing Workforce, a Seattle-based watchdog group that monitors the use of so-called “permatemps” by companies trying to avoid paying health-care benefits, according to a news report in the Olympia (Washington) Olympian.

Most of the affected UW workers were in custodial and secretarial jobs, but some were hospital assistants, according to the report.

“I think it’s the most egregious misclassification I’ve seen since I got here,” Greg Devereux, executive director of the 20,000-member federation, told the newspaper. In fact, Devereux suggested a statewide audit could reveal as many as 6,000 to 10,000 such “permatemps” in the university, college and community college systems.

University spokesmen did not comment on the findings, saying they need to review the reports and get more information from researchers. “It’s a report that has a number of assertions. We need to look into them. We take the report seriously,” Liz Coveney of the UW’s human resources administration, told the newspaper.

The union action was triggered in part by a court case in favor of contracted employees at  Microsoft Corp., but it followed complaints voiced by workers over a long period, Devereux said.

Union Commissions Study

The union’s national affiliate then contracted with the Center for a Changing Workforce to study the situation in several states, including Washington, Devereux said.

The center found that 215 workers at the UW Medical Center and the UW-run Harborview Medical Center exceeded workers’ hourly limits per year since 1996 and that temporaries provided 1 million hours of work at the two hospitals in 2001.

Another 400 temporary workers might have been eligible for retirement benefits but were denied, Devereux said.

In many cases, UW shuffled its workers from temporary to contract status and back again in a practice the union called “payrolling,” which also required the use of temporary-employment agencies.

Up to 3,000 temporary workers are employed by the university, which lets the school avoid paying health-care and pension costs while also undercounting the number of full-time employees it must report on its payroll, the union said.