BROOKSVILLE — A group of supervisors at the Hernando County Sheriff's Office has started down a path toward unionizing.
Twenty of the agency's 26 so-called first-line supervisors — mostly sergeants and some corporals — have signed cards authorizing a vote to form a collective bargaining unit, said Steve Klapka, president of the local chapter of the Fraternal Order of Police.
First-line supervisors, such as patrol sergeants, are generally out in the field alongside the deputies and other employees they direct.
"They want the same fair and balanced, even playing field as we do," said Klapka, whose chapter represents about 235 sworn rank-and-file employees, including patrol deputies and detectives. Of those, about 175 are dues-paying members of the chapter.
Klapka has submitted the cards and a petition to the Florida Public Employees Relations Committee, which will process the request and determine whether the supervisor group should be a separate bargaining unit or grouped with the rank-and-file employees. That could take weeks, Klapka said.
The supervisors would then cast ballots to decide which union, if any, will represent them. At the very least, the employees will have the choice between the FOP or the status quo. Other unions that want a spot on the ballot must get signatures from at least 10 percent of the total number of supervisors.
The option that earns 50 percent plus one vote wins. If none earns a majority, a runoff is held between the top two vote-getters.
Klapka said some of the supervisors approached him several months ago, expressing interest in collective bargaining and to find out how to start the process.
The staffers want to have a say in salary and benefit negotiations, Klapka said. Some of the sergeants have concerns about their salary step system, which allows some lower-ranked employees to earn more than they do, said Klapka, a deputy assigned to the training division.
"I've been there 25 years, and I make more than some of the sergeants, and they don't feel that's fair, and I agree with that," he said. "They're taking responsibility for men and women out on the street and should be compensated for it."
Some of the supervisors declined through Klapka to comment to the Times. Messages left for others were not returned.
Klapka sent a letter to Sheriff Al Nienhuis, notifying him that the process is under way. Nienhuis said he would prefer to continue to deal directly with the supervisors. Union representation can inhibit, rather than foster, open dialogue, he said.
"I don't think they need a third party to negotiate for them, but that is their prerogative. And if that's what they want to do, I'm still going to support them and do everything I possibly can for them," Nienhuis said.
The sheriff acknowledged the inherent problems of a salary scale that includes many different ranks. The disparity for sergeants, he said, is frustrating, but pushing up their pay would create a chain reaction along the entire salary scale.
Nienhuis said he is open to ideas, but added: "I don't know if a collective bargaining unit is going to provide a solution they can't do without it."
If the supervisors vote to unionize, Klapka said, it will be worth a try. The union already has some ideas about compressing the pay scale for sergeants without drastically increasing costs.
"It's not going to be done overnight," he said, "but we can sit down at the table and put our heads together and figure it out."
Rank-and-file sworn employees at the Hernando Sheriff's Office were among the first in the state to form a union after the Florida Supreme Court ruled in 2003 that sheriff's deputies may engage in collective bargaining for pay, benefits and working conditions.
The ruling reversed a long-held standard that deputies are an extension of the elected sheriff and don't have the right to unionize, as do city police officers, state corrections officers and Florida Highway Patrol troopers.
Tony Marrero can be reached at (352) 848-1431 or [email protected]