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Published: Wednesday, 10/19/2011

Union of 150 OKs contract with cuts

BY TONY COOK
BLADE STAFF WRITER

About 150 Lucas County employees have approved a new collective-bargaining agreement that will freeze wages and reduce severance payouts, saving the county up to an estimated $256,000 in the short run.

The new three-year contract covers only a portion of the county's 1,985 unionized employees, but commissioners are hoping it sets the standard for negotiations with other bargaining units. It was approved by 90 percent of the union's members and goes into effect Nov. 1, two months before the previous contract was set to expire.

"In times like these, we're thrilled to have come to agreement with the union," Pete Gerken, president of the board of commissioners, said Tuesday while announcing the ratification. "This is the perfect example why local governments need to be able to handle their business without state interference."

That comment was a thinly veiled shot at Issue 2, which is a referendum on Senate Bill 5, a measure that would scale back collective-bargaining rights for public-employee unions. The board, which is comprised of three Democrats, unanimously opposes Issue 2.

The new contract, which covers employees in the facilities, purchasing, waste-water management, dog warden, and building regulation departments, freezes wages through 2012, but allows for renegotiations in 2013 and 2014. These county employees have not received raises since 2008.

The new contract also effectively slashes severance pay for retiring workers. Under the previous contract, a 29-year old provision allowed retiring employees to cash out up to one-third of their unused sick leave, up to a maximum of 320 hours. The new policy limits that to one-quarter and a maximum of 240 hours.

If enacted, Senate Bill 5 would cap cash payouts for sick leave for retiring employees at 1,000 hours, and cut sick time from three to two weeks annually for most local government employees, according to provisions of the bill.

The local agreement also reduces the amount of unused vacation time employees can cash out when they stop working for the county. In the past, workers could carry over three years worth of unused vacation time. The new agreement will reduce that amount in steps, ultimately restricting vacation time carry-overs to one year of vacation time by 2014.

Currently, about 30 of the bargaining unit's employees are eligible to retire. Based on that snapshot, county officials said the new unused vacation time policy could save up to $196,450, while changes to the sick time policy could save up to $60,000.

The new agreement also alters the way overtime is awarded when an employee is called back to work more than once within a four-hour span. That change is expected to save the county money in departments such as waste-water treatment and the dog warden's office. Additionally, the contract formalizes an agreement the county struck with the union earlier this year that provides for a volunteer program in the dog warden's office.

During a news conference announcing the ratification Tuesday, Steve Kowalik, representative for American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees, Local 544, said the smooth negotiations show that level-headed politicians and union members can work together without Senate Bill 5.

"Collective bargaining works the way it is written in law today," Mr. Kowalik said. "We didn't need arbitration. We didn't need a Senate bill."

Proponents of Issue 2 say the new county contract shows just the opposite.

"It's a great example of how Senate Bill 5 is already working in our communities," said Connie Wehrkamp, spokesman for Building a Better Ohio, the organization campaigning for passage of Issue 2. "[It] encourages government workers to make some concessions and hopefully avoid layoffs that communities like Lucas County have seen in recent years."

Commissioner Gerken dismissed the notion that the threat of Issue 2 encouraged the union to take a more moderate stance in negotiations.

"We've been talking about these kind of systemic chances for a long time, since before [Gov. John] Kasich's administration came in," he said. "We took a look at our aging work force and realized the cash-outs could be big. What forced us to look at this wasn't Senate Bill 5 -- it was the economy."

The county already made similar severance-pay reforms last month for about 600 nonunion employees.

Contact Tony Cook at: acook@theblade.com or 419-724-6065.



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