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Commission goes against union in most disputes

DADE CITY — Pasco's rank-and-file county workers brought several labor disputes before county commissioners Tuesday as they try to hammer out their first collective bargaining agreement with county administrators.

The employees didn't get much good news.

Commissioners agreed with the union's position on only one of more than a dozen provisions in dispute. They also rejected giving workers a one-time bonus, citing an eye-popping sticker price.

The commission's decisions on issues ranging from lunch breaks to discipline procedures to the role of seniority in layoff decisions will now be incorporated in a tentative contract. That will receive an up-or-down vote by the roughly 1,000 county employees represented by the Teamsters Local 79 union.

That vote doesn't stand a good chance, according to the handful of union members who attended Tuesday's meeting.

"There's a snowball's chance in hell," predicted Bruce Lee, a facilities department staffer.

"I highly doubt it," added Warren Johnson, a special equipment operator in the utilities department. "They're not giving us anything."

If the contract is voted down, union negotiators and county administrators would go back to the bargaining table to continue working on the contract.

Johnson said Pinellas and Hillsborough recently decided to give their employees a one-time bonus to compensate for going years during the recession without a raise.

"And I know for a fact that Pasco is in better shape," he said.

A lawyer for the union estimated it would cost about $750,000 to give a one-time 3 percent bonus to workers represented by the union.

But County Administrator John Gallagher said he would prefer to include all county workers (including non-unionized managers) and employees who work for elected constitutional officers. A $1,000 bonus for each of those employees could cost up to $4 million.

"Don't vote with your heart, but vote with what fiscal reality is today and what it looks like it may be in the future," Gallagher told commissioners.

The bonus proposal appeared to have some support, especially from Commissioners Pat Mulieri and Henry Wilson.

"I think it's intrinsic in human nature to want to get something when you work, to show that you're needed and you're important," Mulieri said. "I really think we need to do something. It's tough out there."

Commissioner Ann Hildebrand asked: "Where do we come up with those dollars?" (The amount would likely be pulled out of reserves.)

"That's a great question," Wilson replied. "That's the $4 million question."

Commissioners later voted unanimously to continue with a countywide wage freeze. After the hearing, Wilson said he "could not sleep well at night" if the county gave bonuses to one group of workers and not another. "But then you're up to that multi-million-dollar figure," he said.

Several employees were upset that commissioners rejected the idea of allowing workers to appeal a suspension or demotion to an outside arbitrator. They said the existing personnel board doesn't adequately address decisions based on favoritism.

Commissioners also rejected most provisions dealing with seniority, only voting to create a committee to study the issue over the next year. The union argues that layoff decisions based on seniority help protect older, more experienced workers from newly hired employees who might have a cozy relationship with the boss.

The county has adopted a formula that gives some weight to seniority but places much more emphasis on performance evaluations.

Douglas Hecht was laid off after working 23 years in the parks department, and has been rehired in the utilities department. He said he and two other staffers were let go even though they had a combined 70 years of experience.

"They kept people that weren't even off their probation," he said. "They kept people who weren't even there a year. The long-term employees of this county that have given their lives to this county need some kind of security."

Workers narrowly voted to form the union back in August 2010. Now, two years later, the union's contract still isn't approved. James Cherof, an outside lawyer hired by the county, said that delay isn't unusual when crafting an initial agreement with a new union.

"It takes time to get a good contract because it's the foundation for every contract that comes after it," he said.

Lee Logan can be reached at llogan@tampabay.com or (727) 869-6236.

Commission goes against union in most disputes 10/02/12 [Last modified: Tuesday, October 2, 2012 8:20pm]
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