In a span of about half a year, Lucas County jail administrator Rick Keller saw his retirement package swing by $44,000.
First, Mr. Keller thought he could lose the sick-time payout he expected after county Prosecutor Julia Bates determined that nonunion employees like him weren't eligible for the same benefit as union employees.
A recent decision by an arbitrator, though, offered an out for Mr. Keller and other nonunion employees in the sheriff's office. Citing a provision of the union contract, arbitrator James Klein, a University of Toledo law professor, found that nonunion employees at the sheriff's office are entitled to return to the union.
For Mr. Keller, that means he'll be able to re-enter the union he left in 1986 before he retires Oct. 1. By doing that, he will leave his job with about $55,000 in sick-time pay that he's accumulated during his 29 1/2 years at the jail.
"Part of my [retirement] plans were made accordingly," Mr. Keller said. "At that time, we didn't have any reason to believe [the sheriff's] policy would not hold true for everyone. So that was a big factor in my planning."
At issue is a provision in the union contract that allows union employees to get paid for 65 percent of the sick-time hours they've accumulated at retirement. Other county employees don't have that generous benefit - their accumulated sick-time payout is capped at 40 days.
Sheriff James Telb always has compensated his nonunion employees the same as union members, so some of his administrators started receiving big checks when they retired after the 65 percent no-cap provision took effect in 2004.
That ended when Mrs. Bates determined in January that seven nonunion employees in the sheriff's office received about $160,000 in excess payments. She said the nonunion employees not covered by the contract should have their sick-time payouts capped at 40 days.
All but two of the nonunion employees who received the money have made provisions to pay it back to the county. Mrs. Bates is suing the other two in an attempt to retrieve the money.
Mrs. Bates' opinion aside, about five nonunion members of the sheriff's office would be eligible to return to the union, Sheriff Telb said. The issue arose when the sheriff denied a request from Cindy Dean, former director of inmate services, to return to the union before her retirement.
Sheriff Telb said his stance had nothing to do with Ms. Dean, who moved to the nonunion position in 2003, but rather he didn't think the contract clause allowing re-entry into the union should be used to take advantage of union benefits. "I felt that clause in the contract was to protect individuals from being fired and getting put out on the street," the sheriff said. "When they gave up their union position to take a non-union job, I felt the union contract covered them if I was going to throw them out in the street."
In ruling on the grievance, Mr. Klein, the arbitrator, said the contract language was unambiguous, allowing employees to return to a union job as long as they're qualified for it and have the necessary seniority.
According to county payroll records, the ruling meant Ms. Dean got a sick-time payout of $20,898 instead of the $8,998 she would have received had the payout been capped at 40 days.
Mr. Keller, who was part of the sheriff's negotiating team for the contract in which the sick-time payout caps initially were lifted, said that's only fair. He said the employees entered the nonunion jobs with the understanding that they'd receive the same benefits union members were entitled to.
Contact Dale Emch at: firstname.lastname@example.org or 419-724-6061.
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