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Negotiations for county workers hit seniority snag

BROOKSVILLE — Representing about 400 county employees, Teamsters Local 79 pushed hard Thursday to get the county administration to agree to use seniority as the main factor in filling county jobs.

Employees perceive that some jobs are filled with people county officials want to hire and that they use a subjective screening process to "magically'' make them appear the best fit for the job, said John Sholtes, Teamsters bargaining agent.

"We're tired of getting screwed … tired of being kicked to the curb,'' Sholtes said.

He explained that he had proposed the seniority language "to fix the problems created by management.''

But members of the county's bargaining team firmly rejected the idea of relying on seniority as the primary factor. They said hiring decisions need to be based on criteria that include education, training, experience, performance and discipline history.

Unable to settle the sticking point that has caused contract talks to drag on for nearly two years, the parties decided to give county commissioners another shot at settling the stalemate.

County officials hope to schedule an executive session with the commission on March 12 to discuss the proposed seniority provision and a dispute on the reopening of salary issues within the next year. Union negotiation is one of the rare times when the commission can meet in a closed session.

Another bargaining date for the negotiating teams has been set for March 14, if it is needed.

If agreement still cannot be reached on contract language to send out for employees to ratify, the talks may land in an impasse, and the issues could go before a special magistrate or the County Commission in an open session.

Negotiations on the pact began in April 2011. In the months that followed, the county's budget challenges brought to the table talk of furloughs, higher health insurance premiums and another year of frozen salaries.

In November 2011, the union membership voted 306-45 to reject the proposed contract, sending the bargaining teams back to the table.

By April 2012, the teams exhausted the list of items they could agree on and declared an impasse. In the past several months, the two sides have been to mediation and found some common ground, including an increase in the amount the county would pay for health insurance premiums.

But the seniority issue has remained unsolvable as continued restructuring of county government has raised questions about some of the county's hiring choices.

Sholtes offered language stating that open positions — including those being reclassified — would be filled based on the seniority of qualified applicants.

"Our language proposal takes out what we perceive to be the subjective part of the process,'' he said, noting it would take away any appearance of favoritism.

County administration countered with a process that would include points based on seniority that would be taken into consideration when hiring employees.

Sholtes said that wasn't good enough. He said he watched as county managers filled open positions with outside applicants when qualified employees and laid-off employees were being bypassed.

Administrative services director Cheryl Marsden, who heads the county's negotiating team, took issue with Sholtes telling county commissioners that other nearby jurisdictions have similar seniority language when her research shows that that's not the case.

Seniority plays a role in decisionmaking in the Teamsters' contract with the Citrus County School Board, but it doesn't wipe out the screening component and it isn't the primary criterion, she said.

Deborah Brown, a lawyer from Tampa working with Marsden's team, said the county is not opposed to considering seniority, but the focus in filling positions is "to hire the most qualified person.''

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

Negotiations for county workers hit seniority snag 02/28/13 [Last modified: Thursday, February 28, 2013 8:16pm]

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