LOCKPORT – Niagara County government’s relations with its labor unions remain frozen in place, while the county continues to pay big money for a Buffalo law firm to handle all the lawsuits and grievances.
The county paid $207,787 to Jaeckle, Fleischmann & Mugel for work done in 2013, according to bills examined by The Buffalo News under the state’s Freedom of Information Law. That’s slightly down from the $219,173 paid in 2012.
The bills included work on 26 cases that were taken before a court, the state Public Employment Relations Board or the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.
Although Jaeckle Fleischmann bills the county every month for “labor negotiations,” which accounted for $20,550 in county costs, it seems there’s not much negotiating going on.
The county declared impasses last summer with three of its six unions, all of which are working under terms of contracts that ran out at the end of 2011.
Bargaining sessions have dried up to practically nothing. William C. Rutland, president of Local 182, American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees – the blue-collar union – said his last bargaining session with the county was July 10.
AFSCME is one of the unions with which the county declared an impasse, the others being the Civil Service Employees Association, which is the white-collar union, and the Deputy Sheriffs Association, which, despite the name, represents corrections officers. Patrol deputies and investigators are members of the Police Benevolent Association.
“We haven’t met with the county in over a year,” said James L. Briggs, chief negotiator for the PBA and for the Probation Officers Association.
CSEA spokeswoman Lynn Miller said the union expects a hearing late this month on its contract impasse and on its grievance over the denial of contractual “step” increases in pay, which generally occur annually.
County Manager Jeffrey M. Glatz announced in October 2011 that the county was not going to be paying those step increases anymore, a move that triggered protests from all the unions.
However, the only union that succeeded in winning the restoration of steps was the Teamsters, representing about half a dozen employees of the county Sewer District.
“Their (contract) language guaranteed it. Our language was optional,” said AFSCME’s Rutland, whose union lost its grievance over steps.
W. James Schwan, attorney for the Deputy Sheriffs Association, said that union’s contract negotiations are in state mediation. But the process is on hold, he said, awaiting an arbitrator’s decision on whether the county’s denial of step increases to some of its members was allowable under the union’s old contract.
“They’ve done it three years in a row, and we’ve had three separate arbitrations on it,” Schwan said. “Until we can determine what the underlying (salary) rates will be, the mediator suggests we wait.”
Schwan said that the arbitrator suffered a serious injury in a fall and that he expects no action until this summer at the earliest.
Briggs said the unions he represents don’t have an arbitration on step increases going on now. “It’s become an issue that will be settled at the table,” he said.
But those two unions aren’t at the table, as neither side is pushing for meetings. “We’re actively engaged in defending our position,” Glatz said of the arbitrations over the steps.
One reason for the slow progress, Glatz said, is that the state arbitrator, Gregory J. Poland, is swamped. “If you talk to him today and you want to talk to him again, you’re probably waiting two or three weeks,” Glatz said.
Rutland said AFSCME expects a meeting with the county and Poland on Thursday.
“To us, impasse is a waste of time,” Rutland said. “We’re going to have to spend time explaining our positions, and at the end, the mediator will make a recommendation.
“I’m sure it will be, ‘You guys need to go back to the table and talk.’ ”
Of the six county unions, only the PBA has the right to binding arbitration. “I don’t think they have an interest in negotiating a fair contract,” Briggs said of county officials. “I don’t think the majority caucus of the Legislature is interested in directing them to work out a contract.”
Glatz said he thinks the reluctance is on the union side, because any deal with the county would presumably include concessions that might not be to the unions’ liking.
“Just like the cow isn’t interested in getting to the butcher house real quick,” Briggs said, “we’re not interested, either. They picked the sandbox; we’re just playing in it.”
Briggs was critical of the leaders of the county’s Human Resources Department, saying they pale in comparison to the officials in the years before there was a county manager.
“If they got rid of the two people in HR who don’t do anything, instead of the two guys who used to do everything,” Briggs said, “they would probably have in the neighborhood of $200,000 to put into contracts. If they didn’t hire attorneys, they’d probably have $200,000 to put into contracts.”
One of the county’s positions is a demand that the unions must begin to pay 10 percent toward health insurance premiums, a policy being imposed on most non-union employees this year.
At present, the 10 percent contribution applies only to the most expensive of the county’s three options.
Rutland said the health insurance contribution would leave his members behind, because the county is offering only a 1 percent annual pay increase in the stalled bargaining.
Meanwhile, the county would like to continue to tinker with its health insurance offerings.
Minutes of a March 13 meeting of the county’s Joint Labor-Management Healthcare Committee, posted on a bulletin board in the County Courthouse, show that Catholic Health System has offered the county a “First Choice Option” plan tailored to self-insured entities such as the county.
It was described as providing greater benefits at less cost through the use of Catholic hospitals and health facilities with fees that are 10 percent to 12 percent lower than the typical fee schedule charged by Independent Health and Nova Healthcare, which administer the county’s current plan.
According to the minutes, Rutland and leaders of the Deputy Sheriffs Association and the PBA said no to the Catholic Health System proposal, saying they would rather find ways to make the county’s three health plans better.
Despite that, a memo to department heads last week informed them that the First Choice option is being evaluated.
The most expensive individual case handled in 2013 by Jaeckle Fleischmann was a U.S. District Court case filed by the Justice Department on behalf of Carisa L. Boddecker, a corrections officer who was required to take an unpaid leave of absence in 2007 while she was pregnant instead of being transferred to a job that would have kept her away from jail inmates.
The Justice Department contends that the county violated the 1964 Civil Rights Act by not treating the pregnant worker the same as it would any other employee whose work abilities were temporarily limited.
The case of United States of America v. Niagara County, filed May 13, cost the county $44,967 in legal fees by the end of the year, and the end is nowhere in sight.
A court document mentions that the county submitted 12,000 pages of background information in February but that the Justice Department still found the material inadequate.