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Contract issues lead to absence of pay raises

by Canda HarbaughWestern News
| February 16, 2009 11:00 PM

Seventeen frustrated Lincoln County Sheriff’s Office employees will meet with county commissioners next month to demand a raise that they believe was promised to them more than seven months ago.

Commissioners voted in June to give all Lincoln County employees a 2.5-percent raise on top of a standard cost-of-living allowance, but a union contract signed prior to the vote made the sheriff’s office employees ineligible. 

The 17 employees are part of a union that had entered into a contract with the county months before, according to Teamster Union representative Dan Dugan of Missoula. The contract dictated that sworn officers would receive the additional 2.5-percent raise, while dispatchers, administrative staff and detention officers would only receive the cost of living increase.

Two non-union administrative staff members at the sheriff’s office received the raise, along with elected county officials, sworn officers and all other county employees.

“When we got our first check in July, it was like, ‘where’s our raise at?’” said Amy Carlberg, detective’s secretary. “They basically never gave us a reason why we didn’t get the raise, except they said they can’t re-negotiate.”

County Commissioner John Konzen admitted that his intention in June was to grant everyone the pay increase.

“The non-sworns were correct in thinking the commission was planning on giving the raise to everyone,” Konzen said, “but I don’t think at the time we were aware of the complexities of the contract.

“When you’re dealing with unions, it’s a different topic,” Konzen added. “We got to talking to our labor negotiator and realized we can’t just give a raise without formal negotiations.”

Dugan and Dan Johns, the county’s labor negotiator, met in August to discuss the possibility of extending the raise to sheriff’s office non-sworn employees.

Dugan said he offered to reopen negotiations, but Johns sent him an e-mail last fall indicating the county wasn’t interested.

Johns said that Dugan rejected his offer to renegotiate after he told Dugan he wanted to discuss more in the contract than just wages. 

The county wanted the union’s blessing for Sheriff Daryl Anderson to replace his sergeants with lieutenants and lieutenants with captains, which would essentially take them out of the union. 

“I said we’ll open it to discuss those wages, but we also want to discuss the changes the sheriff wants to make,” Johns said. “Let’s open it to talk about both things. That’s the reason it didn’t get opened.”

The process of securing the contract with the union last spring was drawn out and narrowly averted a strike, according to Johns. The contract covers a three-year period, retroactive to the 2007 fiscal year and into June 2010. 

It grants all sheriff’s office employees a 1.4-percent raise on top of a 2.8-percent cost of living adjustment for the first year. Years two and three of the contract grants sworn employees a 2.5-percent raise on top of the cost of living increase, while non-sworn employees only receive the cost of living adjustment.

When the county and union went eight months into the 2007 fiscal year without securing a contract, the union gave the county four days notice for a strike March 1, 2008, Johns said. That is when the current contract was agreed on.

“This was the union’s proposal,” Johns said. “They proposed more for the deputies because for a number of years deputies were only getting increases related to cost of living.”

Dugan believes the commission won’t give union members the raise because of a 50-cent increase members received a few years ago. 

“That will be part of their justification, but (the employees) were underpaid to begin with,” Dugan said. “It’s like putting it in one hand and taking it out of the other.”

Johns alluded to the previous raise.

“In some years, you may get a little more and somebody get a little less,” Johns said. “There are instances in the past when the non-sworns came out ahead. In the long-term, it ends up pretty equal.”

The 2.5-percent raise began when the union asked for it for sworn officers, according to Dugan, and then commissioners extended the raise to non-union employees.

“It really is disheartening to charge dues to our members to see a raise handed routinely to other members when they’re the ones that initiated the whole thing,” Dugan said. “This is like a double whammy.”

Officer wages are tied to the sheriff’s wage, which is tied to all elected county officials’ wages, according to Johns. By agreeing to a 2.5-percent increase for sworn officers, the county had to bump up all elected officials’ pay by 2.5 percent.

“When they did that, the county officials figured they would give it to everyone in the county,” Johns said. “That’s what created the rub with the union.”

Dugan maintains that negotiations have gone back and forth between the union and county since July and that the issue “isn’t something that just popped up.”

“It’s an ongoing thing,” Dugan said. “We just didn’t make a big public issue out of it.”

Konzen doesn’t recall talking to anyone about the matter since July. Commissioner Marianne Roose was unaware of the dispute and Commissioner Tony Berget, who took office in November, learned about it this month.    

Dugan sent commissioners a certified letter addressing his bargaining unit’s concerns. Commissioners sent the letter to Johns last week.

“I received the letter Feb. 3,” said Johns. “That’s the first I’ve heard from Dugan on this topic for months.”

Union members plan on asking commissioners at the March 4 meeting for the raise plus back pay for the past eight months.

The meeting will give union members a chance to vent their frustrations, but so far commissioners have not given Johns the go-ahead to reopen negotiations with the union.