The union representing deputies and 911 dispatchers in the Crow Wing County Sheriff’s Office and the county reached a compromise Tuesday, Jan. 26, after a disagreement over holiday pay in two employee contracts.
The settlement agreement, arranged in response to grievances filed by the two bargaining units of the Law Enforcement Labor Services union, won Crow Wing County Board approval by a 3-2 margin. It saw the union relenting to the county’s interpretation of how much employees would be compensated for holidays, while the county agreed to boost Christmas Eve holiday pay from a half-day to full-day rate.
Sheriff Scott Goddard strongly advocated for the compromise while commissioners on both sides of the vote mulled over the financial impacts of a future sea change among other employees inspired to seek comparable agreements.
“Do I see this as a good outcome? Yes,” Goddard said. “It is my office and it is my schedule, and the decisions made here today by you could have direct reflection on something that I control, my schedule. I am in favor of this moving forward and I’m going to reserve my comments there.”
Reached by phone after Tuesday’s meeting, County Administrator Tim Houle said the matter came down to whether each party wished to give a little to reach an agreement outside of arbitration or risk the potential for a more lopsided decision in either direction issued by a third-party arbitrator. Deputies and 911 dispatchers are among a subset of public employees considered essential bargaining units under the Public Employment Labor Relations Act, meaning they cannot strike. Instead, labor disputes go through a process called interest arbitration, and the decisions issued there are binding on both negotiating parties.
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“This is kind of the bird in the hand compared to two in the bush,” Houle said. “Do you want the devil you know or the devil you don’t?”
Houle said the grievances arose when the county and union left the negotiating table for the new three-year contract late last year with different interpretations of new language added surrounding paid holidays. The union believed the change meant all employees, whether scheduled to work a holiday or not, would receive pay equal to the shift lengths they typically worked — 10- or 12-hour days. The county, on the other hand, believed only employees scheduled to work would earn holiday pay equal to shift length, while those not working would be paid eight hours for a holiday.
The new contract language replaced the previous arrangement, which saw employees using paid time off tacked on to the paid holiday to make up the difference of shifts longer than eight hours. Houle said the issue became more apparent as the sheriff’s office adjusted its scheduling to promote social distancing amid the coronavirus pandemic — longer shifts means less contact between employees.
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One consideration when negotiating various aspects of labor contracts is the potential for other unions to ask for the same favorable terms, Houle said. A county analysis of the union’s contract interpretation showed if that change were extrapolated across 11 holidays for the county’s 435 other employees, it would increase labor costs by just under $350,000 a year. Applying the Christmas Eve compromise across the board instead would cost $11,358 annually.
As of Tuesday, sheriff’s deputies and 911 dispatchers are the only employees receiving the full-day Christmas Eve benefit. Others in the sheriff’s office, including higher-ranking sergeants, will continue to receive half-day pay on Christmas Eve until or if they renegotiate that point during their next labor negotiations.
The settlement also assured the county maintained control over shift lengths and scheduling flexibility, which Houle said could have been subject to more rigid requirements in contract language through the arbitration process.
“It has hit a lot of our employees very personally, because what we’re talking about here is scheduling and their lives, and when they’re going to work, when they have time off,” Goddard said. “Day care, everything plays into it. I can’t make you vote one way or another, but my vote for this, if I had a say, is yes, this is a means to an end that will be beneficial.”
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Commissioners Bill Brekken, Steve Barrows and Doug Houge voted in favor of the compromise, while commissioners Rosemary Franzen and Paul Koering voted against.
Following Human Resource Director Meliene Fontaine-Laska’s summary of the agreement, Koering — participating virtually from Florida as he has during a number of recent meetings — expressed his displeasure with it.
“I’m not going to go into a big rampage here, even though I’d like to,” he said. “I just don’t agree with this at all. … This is going to open the floodgates. If all the unions see this, they’re going to see this and they’re going to go, ‘Well my God, I want to have our union people have the same thing.’ I just, you know, out in the rest of Crow Wing County, I can see getting Christmas Day as a paid holiday and Thanksgiving as a paid holiday, but we’re expanding this and now we’re saying Christmas Eve is a full paid holiday. I don’t agree with that at all.”
Koering raised the specter of layoffs or tax increases, should other unions follow suit, and said he disagreed with attorney Susan Hansen, hired to represent the county.
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“She says, ‘I don’t think you can win the arbitration,’” Koering said. “She doesn’t know that, and I don’t agree with that. … I’m standing on principle and I’m voting no on this. We could go to arbitration and we could win this.”
Brekken said the board’s decision would affect labor negotiations in the future.
“If we approve this today, are we just kicking the can down the road and eventually having to pay the consequences anyway?” Brekken asked.
“The answer to that is potentially yes,” Barrows replied. “ … I mentioned that in the negotiating process. If that issue is brought forward, we have to be very adamant that Local is going to give up something to get that. There’s a price to pay on both sides for negotiating a contract, and how firm you want to be determines how firm they want to be. So their tool, in the end, is a strike. That’s the bottom line.”
After hearing from Goddard, Koering said he sympathized with the sheriff but had concerns about the future.
“I could just look at this year’s budget and not worry about next year or the next year,” he said. “But I think this is going to have a dramatic effect down the road on the county’s budget.”
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Barrows said his experience in labor negotiations showed there would be ways to mitigate the costs by making changes elsewhere in contracts.
“It will be a tough negotiation but I think there are avenues to address it,” he said.
Franzen asked Fontaine-Laska the number of employees affected by the agreement and the total number of county employees. Fontaine-Laska said 50 sheriff’s office employees were involved out of 485 total across all departments.
“So we have 435 more people who are going to expect this,” Franzen said. “ … It doesn’t sound good to me.”
Houge said while the board could be kicking the can, it would also have more time to plan for the future financial impacts of changes to labor contracts.
“Rolling the dice and assuming we’re going to win — I don’t know that I’m comfortable with that,” Houge said. He followed by making the motion to approve the agreement, seconded by Brekken.
Houle said this is the only 2021-23 employee labor contract for which a settlement agreement was required.