As Washington’s liquor sales transfer from public to private hands, some state employees are making the same transition or moving to other public agencies before the June 1 deadline.
That early exodus could force some state stores to close ahead of schedule, as the Washington State Liquor Control Board struggles to find enough temporary workers to keep all its 166 locations open.
Voters chose to privatize the liquor distribution and sales by passing Initiative 1183 in November, meaning the state distribution center and stores will close by June 1. The liquor board estimates that more than 900 of its employees will lose their jobs.
Some already are finding employment elsewhere. Between Jan. 1 and mid-March, about 75 employees left the agency.
One of those was Steve Burnell, who gave up his marketing position with the liquor board to take a job with a private distributor in February.
“Rather than wait it out, I wanted to move over to a new position,” Burnell said.
About 10 workers are leaving each week, said Clarice Nnanabu, human resources director for the Liquor Control Board. The agency has been hiring temporary workers to fill the gaps, but as the June deadline approaches, that’s becoming more difficult.
“They find out it’s six or seven weeks, and they’re not interested,” Nnanabu said. “We’re not getting people who are willing to work for that short of time without benefits.”
Some former employees have come out of retirement to help in the interim, she said.
Liquor board spokesman Brian Smith said it’s not unexpected that employees would leave before June.
“It’s only natural that they try and find work,” he said.
Smith said the agency discussed consolidating stores at a meeting last week, but that specific locations had not yet been identified. He said he wasn’t sure when that information would be made public, but that employees at consolidated stores would be transferred to others.
Some stores could close by the end of the month. It’s not a new idea – Smith said consolidating stores has been the contingency plan all along, should staffing become a problem.
Former state liquor workers are finding new jobs in the private sector and at other state agencies. Costco, which contributed more than $22 million to the initiative to create private liquor sales, is one of the companies interviewing state liquor employees.
“I think it’s all over the map. There are certainly quite a few folks who are staying, and quite a few folks who are going,” said Tom Geiger, spokesman for the union that represents more than 700 state liquor store employees. “The real challenge is going to be, as many more hundreds of people are looking to be losing their jobs what’s going to happen to them? And that’s just a big unknown.”
Burnell, who now leads a program for Young’s Market Co. to create express stores for retail clients, said three other former board employees have joined his team. He said employees looking to transfer to the private sector will have to be sales people with strong customer service skills, at least to be hired by his company.
For employees looking for another state position, some say it’s outside training that counts.
Katherine Beatty worked as a clerk at the downtown Olympia liquor store for more than two years before she started an office assistant position with the Department of Labor and Industries in February. She said her prior office experience with state agencies – the Washington State Traffic Safety Commission and Department of Social and Health Services – helped her get the new job and she worries about clerks without such additional training.
“I think those were really the only things that got me the job that I’m at now,” Beatty said.
She said many clerks want to find other state employment and the benefits that come with it, but that the specialized retail position doesn’t easily transfer to other state work.
“It’s just really defeating for some of these people to have put in 15 years of service and not be able to find any other state employment,” she said. “It was a lot more extensive than just showing people where the vodka was.”
Alexis Krell: 360-943-7123