No one wants to work (the force) anymore

Spokane has a cop gap, welfare has an Amazon problem, and Biden's internet equity play has holes you could drive an inner city through

NO ONE WANTS TO WORK (THE FORCE) ANYMORE 

Last month, Range brought you a story about Spokane County Detention Services’ inability to fully staff the county jail and Geiger Corrections Center. In an attempt to entice new corrections officers and jail staff, SCDS offered signing bonuses to the tune of $10K. Spokane County Sheriff’s Office, also desperate to fill vacant positions, promised new hires deal-sweeteners of up to $15K. 

The city’s law enforcement staffing woes are far from over. This week, The Spokesman-Review reported that the Spokane Police Department will temporarily halt its traffic unit this month to fill staffing gaps. The plan is to pull certain cops away from specialty traffic unit tasks like DUI and red-light patrol and reassign them to general patrol, then reassess at year’s end. Traffic investigations will still continue.

While SPD attributes its staffing shortage to officers over 50 opting for early retirement and an underwhelming number of job applicants, Chief Craig Meidl cites (pun intended) other reasons for the city’s lack of L.E.O.s, including: 

  • Spokane’s sky-high rental and housing market makes it hard to attract relocating officers.

  • Washington State’s recent policing reform laws. (Meidl claims we’re losing cops to states with less regulation, like Idaho and Montana.)

  • And finally, “Anti-police rhetoric”(!)

Nationally, reports of a mass exodus of cops are just not born out by the stats.

At home, Chief Meidl believes the SPD could remain understaffed for years, saying, “I think a lot of it is going to have to do with what directions communities go in support of their law enforcement.” 

In the same week that Meidl denounced cop-critical rhetoric, he appeared at a ribbon-cutting ceremony for a new crisis care stabilization unit on West Gardener. The center is being touted as an alternative to jail or the E.R. for people experiencing mental health or drug-related problems. 

At a press event that included Mayor Nadine Woodward and Council Member Betsy Wilkerson (but conspicuously not Sheriff Ozzie Knezovich, who is pushing his own new jail agenda), Meidl said about the facility: 

“This provides a niche for that gray area and will give our officers and our deputies a lot more flexibility in trying to get these individuals that extra support that they need as well. So this is a huge evolution for us, and it’s just a example of the region’s staying at the front end of the trends nationwide as well.”

If this sounds like the police defunding themselves, it’s not. The facility is paid for with a grant. In places where true mental health diversions have been implemented, cops are taken almost completely out of the equation and replaced with trained mental health professionals.

It’s also unclear how much freedom people sent to stabilization will have, or whether they’ll be able to check out under their own steam, so we could see this going one of two ways: as a place outside of jail where people can be placed to sleep it off or even detox, or a place that functions much like involuntary incarceration without actually being “jail” — while also existing outside the due process context of the courts. We’ll keep an eye out for those details.

Meanwhile, of the cops that remain on Meidl’s force, some were caught on tape vocally resisting vaccine mandates. They’re not the only law enforcement officers opposed to Gov. Inslee’s vaccine rules. Hundreds of State Troopers and prison guards are among the Washington State employees who are seeking vaccine exemptions and/or joining a lawsuit against the mandates. 

This seems to be an emerging national trend. In California, thousands of LAPD officers are similarly seeking vax exemptions and some are suing over vaccine — and even mask — mandates. — Elissa

NAVIGATING AMAZON

With Amazon opening its second Spokane-area facility (for big stuff, apparently), and the California Senate last week passing a bill designed to curb the company’s notorious quota system — and the huge number of injuries that result from the breakneck pace and physicality those quotas demand of warehouse workers — we couldn’t help but notice a press release from Tuesday lionizing the company’s compensation for fulfillment center employees and drivers while announcing 4,500 new job openings. 

“The roles in fulfillment and transportation offer an average starting wage of more than $18 per hour—and up to $22.50 per hour in some locations. The company also provides full-time employees comprehensive benefits from day one, worth an additional $3.50 per hour. They include health, vision, and dental insurance, 401(k) with 50% company match, up to 20 weeks paid parental leave, and Amazon's Career Choice program, in which the company will pay full college tuition for its front-line employees...”

No mention of the risks associated with the jobs, but that’s not surprising for a press release, which are, by definition, propaganda tools. Also unsurprising is the gloss with which they outline “average” starting salaries and benefits with “up to” certain levels of leave. Those are notorious weasel words.

And while these wages are well above the state minimum wage, in almost every circumstance — unless you are childless — they are below a living wage in Spokane County (bookmark that link, it’s a really useful reference). 

What are workers getting for these just-barely-to-not-quite living wages?

Food stamps, for one, according to the US Government Accountability Office. Only Walmart and McDonalds and a couple dollar store chains have more workers requiring assistance than Amazon.  70% of these jobs are full time, meaning tax payers are subsidizing Amazon’s exploitation of its labor force.

That whole Bloomberg article is worth the read, but here are some highlights:

  • When Amazon comes in, wages go down: “In 68 counties where Amazon has opened one of its largest facilities, average industry compensation slips by more than 6% during the facility’s first two years”

  • Jobs at similar unionized logistics warehouses routinely pay double what Amazon pays. 

  • Amazon promotes fewer employees, barely ⅓ of the logistics industry average. 

Then, of course, there is the legendarily strict policing of employees' time at its fulfilment centers. And while consumers tend to think of the almost endless selection of products and cheap shipping as Amazon’s competitive advantages, experts believe it’s the way the company uses technology to control and discipline its workforce.

“I believe one of Amazon’s biggest competitive advantages over rivals is this ability to monitor their work force, prod workers to work faster and discipline workers when they fail to meet quotas.”

Beth Gutelius, research director at the Center for Urban Economic Development at the University of Illinois Chica

Employee agitation has led Amazon to increase the generosity (“Employees asked - we listened!”) of its Career Choice program, which allows employees to go to school to earn an “in demand” degree, though exactly what qualifies as “in demand” is exquisitely vague.

It’s odd that a better-educated workforce would have ⅓ the promotions of other similar logistics companies. Maybe this means that, once they have their degree, Amazon workers migrate to greener pastures.

The other option is that, just because an education program exists, doesn’t mean people are using it. 

After all: If the algorithm so tightly controls their days that front line employees can’t even find time to walk to the bathroom, how many do we realistically think will have time to put themselves through college? — Luke


IN CASE YOU MISSED IT

Elissa spent the last week pulling together this story on the looming ways climate change is directly affecting us in the Inland Northwest. The increasingly awful wildfires are just the beginning. It’s a clear-eyed, but doom-free look at the climate crisis at home. READ IT HERE

This week, beloved local author Jess Walter won the Washington State Book Award for his 2020 novel, The Cold Millions. Luke spoke with Jess about the book last year in a really fun, fascinating early episode of the podcast.


RURAL INTERNETIFICATION

We’ve written about the need for fast, inexpensive internet before but how the way the industry is organized — into effective monopolies that keep prices high, speeds low and generally hamper competition — has left the US lagging badly behind other developed nations and left huge swaths of the country broadband backwaters or entirely unserved. This need still persists, though a recent law at least allows for public utilities districts to build their own broadband infrastructure, the very first hurdle to publicly provided broadband. It’s a good first hurdle, but, y’know.

A second hurdle was cleared in the American Rescue Plan, but there’s a big catch. 

The ARP is an effort to curtail the worst effects of the economic fallout from the pandemic. As such, it attempts to do a lot of things, including that most recent round of stimulus checks and truly meaningful direct aid to local governments like Spokane City and County. (To the chagrin of probably just about everyone, the City hasn’t decided how it wants to spend that money and the County. Well. The County barely has a webpage up about it.) 

The money comes with more restrictions than the CARES Act did, but one of the possible uses is to increase broadband speed and availability across the nation. On the surface that’s a really good thing, especially as more and more jobs switch to remote models. . The state has cleared away regulatory hurdles and now there might be some money to fund it, cool!

Then you read the details.

The money is supposed to support underserved areas — good! — except the areas are defined as lacking internet access of 25 mbps — whaa? Though it technically meets the definition of “broadband,” 25 mbps is painfully slow, useless for multiple users, and all but excludes most cities from even participating in the program. 

The rule then, will only really be in play for rural areas that have no access to the Internet at all. It also doesn’t take into account places where your internet might be 30mbps, but prohibitively expensive. Detta Kissel, a retired treasury Department attorney told the Associated Press, “They’re basically prioritizing those rural areas over the underserved urban areas where there is more population.” 

We won’t wade back into these waters too deeply here (read the previous coverage and you’ll be up to speed), except to point out that this is exactly what big capital wanted. 

There is no economic incentive to wiring the countryside for broadband just as there was no economic incentive to electrify those same areas in the 1930s. So the broadband oligarchs get to have it both ways: they keep their effective monopolies on the huddled (around their screens) urban masses and let the Biden bucks worry about our country cousins. — Luke

SOME GOOD NEWS, FOR ONCE

The Coeur d’Alene Tribe announced it is purchasing a controversial (and rare) 48-acre parcel of land known colloquially as the Pilcher Property — after the man who tried to subdivide the farmland into a 96-lot development. 

The property is notable for a number of reasons: It was a historic permanent settlement for the Coeur d’Alenes, it represents almost ⅓ of the remaining agriculturally zoned land in Spokane city limits, and — insofar as it is bordered on one side by Latah Creek and High Drive Bluff Park on the other — the land serves as “a pretty critical wildlife corridor to the South Hill” according to Trevor Finchamp, of Friends of the Bluff.

We desperately need housing, but we need to build densely. Bulldozing history and habitat for fewer than 100 ticky tacky little boxes wouldn’t get us there.

You can read the Tribe’s press release about the purchase, which documents some fascinating history, here. — Luke

LASTLY, AN ACTION ITEM

Big changes are coming to Spokane County and it’s Commissioner system. Not only are we growing from 3 commissioners to 5, we’re also going to decide on them as individual districts, rather than as countywide votes, which has virtually assured conservative landslides for years. 

The process is a little arcane, but Daniel Walters at The Inlander has a good rundown. If you just want to look at the four proposed maps, view them side by side here:

The redistricting committee is looking for comment from citizens, and you can bet those in danger of losing their stranglehold on power are turning people out in droves. 

There’s a number of ways to submit comments:

Public comments on the draft plan and any revised plans must be submitted by October 12, 2021 Luke

Have a good weekend every one.