Spokane firefighters put in unprecedented hours last year, with the pay to match; also, Lesley Haskell's racist posts make national news, and Washington backtracks on long-term care

click to enlarge A pandemic, wildfires and continued staffing issues resulted in major overtime for some Spokane firefighters. - YOUNG KWAK PHOTO
Young Kwak photo
A pandemic, wildfires and continued staffing issues resulted in major overtime for some Spokane firefighters.

Few public employees — other than football coaches and medical examiners — make more than $200,000 in these parts. Mayor Nadine Woodward, for example, made $168,000 last year. But last year, the city of Spokane counted at least 12 employees — 11 firefighters and one fire communications supervisor — who made over $200,000 in base and overtime pay, according to an Inlander records request of the top 50 overtime recipients for the past six years.

That's thanks to wildfires, COVID, a vaccine mandate and an existing shortage of firefighters that together swelled fire department overtime to over $7.7 million last year.

Forty-one of the employees who received the most overtime last year worked for the fire department — the rest are police officers.

The No. 1 employee, Fire Lt. Brandon Bacon, made $17,200 more in overtime than he made in his base salary, bringing his grand total to about $221,000 in pay for last year alone. That doesn't mean the big paycheck came easy: He logged more than a staggering 1,850 hours in overtime last year — equivalent to working more than 35 hours a week in overtime every week with no vacation.

In part, blame COVID. Bacon was one of the people in charge of COVID response for two years of the pandemic.

"Brandon Bacon worked his tail off managing and setting up all of our contact-tracing during COVID and setting up testing and running an around-the-clock 24/7 committee that helped answer questions and provide guidance during the pandemic," fire union President Randy Marler wrote in an email after the Inlander shared an earlier version of the data with him.

Across the fire department, the decision to treat COVID more seriously than many other area departments meant that the Spokane department not only delayed hiring but refused to accommodate most unvaccinated firefighters. To that, add wildfires: Fire Lt. Jason Archibald took home more than $110,000 in overtime pay alone, largely because of the 1,662 hours he racked up fighting wildfires.

In the case of wildfires, the state Department of Natural Resources will eventually pay for all of that.

"The amount of hours for some of these people is so large that I am concerned about how this might affect their overall well being," City Council President Breean Beggs says.

Watch Inlander.com this week for a deeper dig into the data. (DANIEL WALTERS)

LONGER WAIT

Last week, Gov. Jay Inslee signed changes to the state's new long-term care tax after lawmakers rapidly passed multiple bills to address questions about the program.

Shortly after the WA Cares program was created, critics and supporters alike raised questions about the finer details of the 0.58 percent payroll tax ($0.58 per $100 you earn), which Washington workers started paying in January. Benefits will start at $36,500 (lifetime) and adjust for inflation over time, and can pay for things like professional care in your home, respite for family caregivers and more.

Lawmakers adjusted the program so that people who retire soon after it starts can still benefit, since the original language required paying into the system for at least 10 years before you could benefit. Under the new changes, those who haven't fully vested before retiring, and who were born before Jan. 1, 1968, can receive partial benefits based on the number of years they paid into the program.

Lawmakers also created an opt-out option for people who live out of state but work here, as well as for disabled veterans, military spouses and those with temporary nonimmigrant work visas.

With the new law changes, workers will be reimbursed for the tax they already paid into the system last month, with the new start date set for July 2023.

"The Legislature and Gov. Inslee's work to improve WA Cares this session will give employers and the public more time to understand and prepare for this first-in-the-nation program," said Cami Feek, Employment Security Department commissioner, in an announcement last week. (SAMANTHA WOHLFEIL)

HASKELL REPORT FALLOUT

Lesley Haskell, wife of Spokane County Prosecutor Larry Haskell, had declared herself a "White nationalist," called MSNBC host Joy Reid the N-word, and much, much more. The Inlander reported on these and other incendiary statements from Lesley Haskell last Thursday night, posting numerous screenshots directly taken of her Facebook account and her account on Gab, an alternative social media platform that eagerly welcomes bigoted comments.

Both of Lesley Haskell's accounts were rife with anti-vax, anti-trans and anti-Black rhetoric. Many of these statements had already been pointed out on a website that had previously been dedicated to attacking far-right former Washington state Rep. Matt Shea. Lesley Haskell, for her part, started out defiant and remained that way.

"I have Satan's very own children following me here to try to sully my husband's reputation by throwing MY words at him. LOL!!!!!" Lesley Haskell wrote on her Gab account, hours before the Inlander published. "God and His children always win, silly devils!"

Her husband, Larry Haskell, did not directly answer questions from the Inlander about whether his wife had expressed similar sentiments to him and, if so,whether he pushed back and tried to convince her she was wrong.

Instead, he sent over a statement reiterating that "she is a strong-willed person who will speak her mind" and stressing that her opinions were her own and his "wife's social media postings have no influence or bearing" on how he runs the prosecutor's office. He also condemned "guilt by association."

The news exploded online. MSNBC host Chris Hayes retweeted it. Websites like Newsweek and Raw Story published online summaries. Scores of Twitter commenters demanded accountability, though not always from the relevant people. After the Inlander posted a screenshot of a piece of scratch paper where Lesley Haskell had handwritten comments like "Fauci is a murderer" and "Biden is a fraudulent pedophile," several noted there was a "Meals on Wheels" logo on the bottom of the piece of the paper, and called for the local nonprofit to make a statement.

"We are saddened our materials were used for negativity and hope everyone understands they do not reflect the opinions of Meals on Wheels Spokane," the local nonprofit responded. "Nor do we have any associations with the person who wrote them."

Meanwhile, in an email he sent out to his office on Friday, Larry Haskell further distanced himself from his wife's comments — though without explicitly admitting they were his wife's comments.

"What was expressed in the Inlander, as my wife's comments, are not my views or the views of this office — nor should they ever be," Haskell wrote to his employees, stressing his commitment to avoiding racial bias. "For those of you who may have been distressed by the article, I apologize. If you wish to meet with me in person to discuss any concerns, I surely invite you to do so." (DANIEL WALTERS) ♦

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About The Authors

Daniel Walters

A lifelong Spokane native, Daniel Walters is the Inlander's senior investigative reporter. But he also reports on a wide swath of other topics, including business, education, real estate development, land use, and other stories throughout North Idaho and Spokane County.He's reported on deep flaws in the Washington...

Samantha Wohlfeil

Samantha Wohlfeil covers the environment, rural communities and cultural issues for the Inlander. Since joining the paper in 2017, she's reported how the weeks after getting out of prison can be deadly, how some terminally ill Eastern Washington patients have struggled to access lethal medication, and other sensitive...