REGIONAL – A dispute over sick leave is causing headaches for St. Louis County, facing the prospect of its first strike by nearly two-thirds of its workforce.
On Monday, AFSCME Local 66 filed an intent-to-strike notice after a last-ditch mediation session on Friday failed to produce a settlement. Over 1,000 county employees, affecting nearly every department, could go on strike as early as Aug. 30.
“We certainly hoped for a different outcome, “ said County Administrator Kevin Gray, who said the county is preparing a contingency plan to provide essential services in case of a strike. “Our offer demonstrates that we value and appreciate our employees but also reflects our need to be fiscally prudent with taxpayer dollars.”
But union representatives say the county has not bargained in good faith and is trying to break up the union.
“Our team is willing to work through necessary concessions, but we will not let the employer bust our union with a sick-leave plan that pits new hires against current employees,” said Steve Kniefel, who leads AFSCME’s negotiating team.
At issue is a county proposal to reduce the amount of sick leave that can be accrued by new employees. Current employees can bank up to 1,900 hours of sick-time pay they don’t use and have the value deposited into a health-care savings account at retirement. That amounts to more than 50 weeks of sick leave with the workers’ 37.5-hour workweek.
The county has to set aside funds to pay for the accumulated sick leave, now sitting at $28 million and rising, according to Gray. To reduce taxpayers’ exposure to this liability, the county proposed capping all future employees at 1,150 hours of accumulated sick leave.
“Current employees negotiated for their paid leave and retirement benefits, and we respect that,” said Gray. “But we can’t ignore the impact this liability has on our taxpayers. To be fiscally sustainable into the future, the county must address the level of paid leave benefits for new employees.”
But union leaders object, saying the plan pits older workers against younger employees in the same bargaining unit. “We don’t want to see workers divided against each other,” said Dennis Frazier, president of AFSCME Local 66 and a 28-year veteran of county services.
Brandi Webb and Nicole Curphy, both relative newcomers to St. Louis County’s workforce, share Frazier’s concerns.
“Nobody wants to strike,” said Webb. “But we have to keep our bargaining unit together.” Negotiating different levels of benefits for employees of the same union sets up a slippery slope that could lead to further concessions, she said.
Gray, however, counters that other unions already have agreed to the county’s demand on sick leave.
But when the county attempted to foist the same deal on the sheriff’s union, Local 288 filed for arbitration. The state arbitrator ruled in favor of the union, saying the county sought seven significant changes — an unprecedented number — in benefits for new employees.
“The union has for many years successfully bargained wages and benefits for all of their members without distinction as to when they were hired by the county,” wrote state arbitrator Richard Miller in the Sept. 28, 2012, ruling. “The tiered benefit approach proposed by the county creates an inequity between two classes of employees performing the same job duties and responsibilities.”
Miller also stated that the county failed to prove the changes in benefits were an economic necessity or that it had offered trade-offs in exchange for the new sick-leave accrual policy. “If a party’s desire to reduce benefits or even increase benefits is all that is necessary to meet the burden for change, negotiations under PELRA (the Public Employees Labor Relations Act) would be meaningless,” Miller wrote.
Frazier said the union offered a compromise that would reduce the maximum accrual for sick leave by 20 percent for all members without taking anything away from current employees who have already earned sick leave above the new proposed cap of 1,500 hours. But the county rejected that counteroffer when negotiators walked out of mediation on Friday night at the state Bureau of Mediation Services in St. Paul.
“The county isn’t negotiating in good faith,” said Frazier, who said the county negotiators just used the Friday session to “stall us out and wait for us to offer more concessions. It was a waste of our time and the time of three state mediators.”
Frazier said county employees have already made significant concessions, accepting no or small pay increases in previous contracts. In addition, cutbacks in county staff have increased the workload of remaining employees.
Even so, he said, employees are still willing to work out a contract with the county and pointed to the proposed salary increases included in the county’s latest offer as evidence.
The county’s offer is for a three-year contract with wage increases totaling 4.5 percent. The breakdown calls for a retroactive one-percent pay increase for 2012, a retroactive 1.5-percent increase to the start of 2013 and a two-percent increase for 2014. The increases are in addition to annual salary step increases given to eligible employees.
Health insurance and pension benefits would remain unchanged, and,each employee would receive a lump sum payment of $480 for settling the agreement.
Potential strike’s impact
AFSCME Local 66 represents 1,055 of the county’s 1,620 employees. As county workers, they provide public assistance to families; protect children and vulnerable adults; inspect roads and bridges to keep motorists safe; clean public buildings; and perform all the clerical duties for government work.
County leaders have put together a contingency plan should a strike occur. The plan prioritizes services that the county will keep open with a focus on providing critical services, Gray noted. Some departments would operate with reduced hours and/or locations.
AFSCME Local 66 hopes it doesn’t come down to a strike and Frazier suggested that there is still time to reach a settlement.
The union’s intent-to-strike notice is followed by a 10-day, cooling off period, after which there is a 20-day window when workers can go on strike.
“We’re very conflicted about all this,” said Frazier. “We’ve never been on strike and we don’t want to hurt the people we serve. This is not about money, it’s about fairness and decency.”
Curphy also emphasized that the issue is about equal and fair treatment in the workplace and not about money.
“Sometimes I feel as though we’re being made out not to care about what we’re doing,” she said. “We do care about the community. We’re just asking the county to treat us with respect.”