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County, union haggle without much progress

BROOKSVILLE — For five years, employees have faced frozen pay and extra chores as the size of Hernando County government has shrunk around them.

Some county workers, however, have seen their compensation increase because of job promotions and reclassifications. Since 2010, 50 employees have received pay increases, ranging from less than 1 percent to 72 percent, according to a recent report by the county human resources office.

This week, the union that represents 404 of the 742 employees who work for the County Commission asked for what they see as a fairer way to decide who gets such increases, based on seniority.

One union leader said the current process has allowed county managers to "cherry-pick'' employees they want to reward.

Teamsters business agent John Sholtes said the issue has been "festering'' for some time, but "was reaching a fever pitch lately.''

The proposal surfaced Wednesday during a union negotiating session in which other monetary issues not yet settled dragged on to a stalemate. The contract discussion ended late in the day without either side declaring a formal impasse, but coming very close.

Earlier in the day, International Association of Fire Fighters Local 3760, which represents 127 Hernando County Fire Rescue workers and supervisors, and the county reached impasse over wages. Union members are hoping to have further discussions on paid-time-off benefits for district chiefs, but that issue may also go to an impasse, chief county negotiator Cheryl Marsden said.

At the later session with the Teamsters, Marsden presented a proposal that did not include two provisions the union was pushing to add.

In addition to canceling any plans to take away paid holidays and require furloughs, the Teamsters have been asking the county to provide an additional $28 per pay period to help offset the increase in health insurance premiums this year. They also have wanted to add a "me too" clause that would require the county in future years to provide pay raises for Teamsters that match what other contract employees, including firefighters, receive.

Marsden told the Teamsters that the county wanted to offer a package equal to what the constitutional officers gave their employees, and they did not get additional help with their health insurance premiums.

Last year, the Teamsters had agreed to a series of concessions, including a health plan that provided fewer benefits, furloughs and fewer paid days off. Then, immediately after approval of the county's 2011-12 budget, the constitutional officers announced that their employees would not take the lesser health plan.

In November, when the Teamsters voted on the proposed contract, they overwhelmingly rejected it, and officials on both sides acknowledged that the actions of the constitutional officers contributed to the outcome.

But on Thursday, Teamsters team member Chris Soto said that union members didn't want to end up with an inferior health care plan, compared with that offered to employees working for the constitutional officers.

Sholtes told the county management's team that the revised Teamsters contract will need to include some added health benefits to encourage members to approve it.

He also noted that employees from all corners have been complaining about the county's reclassifying policies. While he acknowledged that management has a right to reclassify and that the current contract was silent on the point, he said provisions are needed to make the process fair.

Sholtes proposed that reclassified positions be declared open, then be filled based on seniority. After Marsden pointed out that some union members could end up out of work under that scenario, the Teamsters agreed that jobs should be filled based on seniority in the affected department.

Interim County Administrator Ron Pianta said that management was not cherry-picking people to reclassify. Each position has been carefully considered as the county has struggled to continue to provide services as government shrinks and reorganizes, he said.

"You've got a lot of people doing a lot of extra work,'' Soto countered. "Everybody is being asked to do a lot more. ... Jobs are getting morphed into abstract things.''

Marsden and Pianta asked repeatedly for examples of people who had been caught in the bind. Teamster members mentioned several examples, but Marsden and Pianta noted that, in each case, the problem happened before the current contract was put in place, or to people who are not part of the bargaining unit.

Sholtes turned the tables and said specific examples would not be given. He then asked the county to produce a report that outlined who had been reclassified in recent years, why and how much of a pay increase each person had received.

Marsden said a report with that information had been produced recently and that she would supply it to Sholtes.

At the end of the session, both Marsden and Sholtes agreed that, on the monetary issues and the reclassification question, the sides were at a stalemate.

Sholtes said he wasn't ready to break off talks, but indicated he wanted to meet again with his team, possibly talk to a couple of county commissioners, then decide whether the union was at impasse.

Marsden suggested the teams set another date to meet, and they decided on March 14 or 15.

If an impasse is declared, the parties would have to agree on a special magistrate who would hear testimony from each side and then make a recommendation. The final decision on contract provisions would rest with the County Commission.

Barbara Behrendt can be reached at behrendt@tampabay.com or (352) 848-1434.

County, union haggle without much progress 02/23/12 [Last modified: Thursday, February 23, 2012 8:31pm]
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