Workers sue WA Department of Corrections over Larch closure

By: - September 14, 2023 3:41 pm

Larch Corrections Center, seen here, is slated to close in fall of 2023. The minimum security facility is located in Yacolt. (Washington State Department of Corrections)

The union representing state correctional employees is asking a court to halt the closure of Larch Corrections Center in southwest Washington, claiming the Department of Corrections violated a number of labor practices ahead of its decision to shutter the facility.

Teamsters Local 117 filed its complaint Wednesday in Clark County Superior Court, alleging Corrections refused to bargain on its closure plan and improperly offered jobs to members in exchange for them ceasing union activities. The complaint also alleges that the state agency  violated an emergency proclamation from the governor concerning the state’s wildfire fighting efforts. 

John Scearcy, Secretary-Treasurer of Teamsters Local 117, said Corrections continues to “recklessly move ahead” with a plan that will harm workers, incarcerated individuals and their families. 

“The DOC has betrayed the trust of the entire community,” he said in a statement.

A Corrections spokesperson said the department does not comment on pending or ongoing litigation.

Agency officials in June announced Larch, a minimum security prison in Yacolt, would be closed by October. They blamed a shrinking population due to changes to the state’s drug possession laws, the facility’s remote location and the cost needed to upgrade it. 

Community members, lawmakers and those who live and work at the facility said they were blindsided by the decision. The facility employs 115 people who now have to relocate. 

In the suit, the Teamsters allege Corrections violated its collective bargaining agreement by  announcing the layoff of bargaining unit members without justification and by changing employees’ working conditions without bargaining. 

As part of its decision to close, Corrections said it would offer jobs to Larch employees at other facilities or work with other nearby agencies, such as the Washington State Patrol, to find them jobs. 

But the Teamsters’ lawsuit claims the department did not consult with the union before offering the employees other jobs and instead “selectively and informally” offered alternative employment opportunities to certain union members.

The complaint also alleges Corrections committed unfair labor practices by offering employees replacement jobs in exchange for ceasing their union activities, according to the complaint. 

Workers also assert the agency violated a proclamation issued in August by Gov. Jay Inslee aimed at ensuring the state does “everything reasonably possible” to help communities respond to and recover from wildfires.

Larch Corrections Center is home to nearly 80 incarcerated individuals who assist with wildland firefighting. Commissioner of Public Lands Hilary Franz has said they are crucial to the state’s firefighting efforts

Corrections says they will move those individuals to a facility in Longview to continue to help with firefighting efforts in southwest Washington, but Franz claims moving them that far away will result in slower response times and make it more expensive to fight fires in the region. 

 Moving the crews out of Larch “undermines” Inslee’s proclamation and risks the lives and properties of Washington’s residents, workers allege. 

As of last month, officials with Corrections and Inslee’s office said they had had no intentions of pausing or changing its plan to close the facility.

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Laurel Demkovich
Laurel Demkovich

Laurel joined States Newsroom in 2023 after almost three years as a statehouse reporter for the Spokesman-Review. She covers state government, the Legislature and all other Olympia news.