Montgomery County, Children Services union sign contract after year of turmoil

Montgomery County Commission President Judy Dodge signs a new Children Services union contract on Tuesday, Sept. 15, 2020. JIM NOELKER / STAFF
Montgomery County Commission President Judy Dodge signs a new Children Services union contract on Tuesday, Sept. 15, 2020. JIM NOELKER / STAFF

Credit: JIM NOELKER

Credit: JIM NOELKER

Montgomery County and the union that represents its Children Services workers have agreed to an “unheard of” three-year contract in the wake of an impasse, a strike and court case last year and a current battle over caseloads and unfilled positions.

After county commissioners voted Tuesday to approve the resolution, the room erupted in applause and the meeting was suspended momentarily for commissioners and a host of Children Services workers to ceremonially sign the contract.

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“Hopefully some of that bad blood will go by the wayside,” said Jane Hay, Professionals Guild of Ohio Council 12 president. “We are working toward a better partnership and moving forward for the betterment of the kids and the families that we serve. It can only benefit everybody.”

Montgomery County Commissioner Debbie Lieberman said the county is happy negotiations didn’t collapse like last year.

“It could have gone another way,” she said. “So we’re very, very pleased with this.”

Hay said it’s the first time the county has agreed to more than a two-year contract with the union that represents the county’s child welfare workers who handle abuse and neglect cases for thousands of children.

“This was like in record-breaking time that we got this one done, and a three-year contract,” she said. “It’s just unheard of.”

Hay said the demands of the job and the coronavirus pandemic have left the ranks of caseworkers depleted, but the county has promised to step up hiring. The Professionals Guild of Ohio represents about 270 bargaining unit positions, but as many as 50 are open, she said.

“You’ve got to keep the positions filled because that’s the meat and potatoes of what we do,” she said. “Those are the people who go out knocking on the doors keeping the kids safe.”

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Hay said the county has provided assurances open caseworker positions will be filled. Children Services has selected 12 candidates — a mix of internal transfers and new hires — that will starting this month and in October and is actively recruiting for six more hires. Additional positions are being evaluated to be filled, said Kevin LaVoie, a county spokesman.

Last September, the sides came to agreement on a contentious wage reopener, but not before the union called a strike, which was met by the county filing for injunctive relief and a judge ordering workers back to their jobs. Eligible employees eventually received a 4.5% raise and others eligible at the top or above their pay scales received that percentage as a lump sum.

Hay said with the financial pressure put on the county by the coronavirus pandemic, the union agreed to no wage increase in the first year of the new 2020-2023 bargaining agreement retroactive to April 1.

PGO members will receive a $750 lump sum signing bonus for 2020, a 1% pay increase in 2021, and a 2% increase in 2022. It also increases tuition reimbursement from $2,300 to $3,500 per year, along with expanding bereavement leave to include aunts and uncles.

Hay said “stability” was the first need for members as they are juggling a demanding jobs during a pandemic.

“They are trying to be teachers at home and social workers,” she said

According to the county, the new contract incorporated changes to the after-hours worker policy to help ensure more effective operations and management rights were enhanced for disciplinary issues and investigations.

At the end of July, Children Services was handling 2,614 child abuse and neglect cases and 663 kids were in foster care. The agency made 3,793 abuse and neglect investigations during 2019.

Montgomery County Administrator Michael Colbert said the new bargaining agreement coupled with a new strategic plan and reorganization in the works will result in an improved Children Services.

“It takes a team. We have to do this as a partnership,” he said. “This puts us in a great position to really move this agency forward.”

Following the death of an infant earlier this year and that of 10-year-old Takoda Collins last year, Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine ordered a state review of “alternative response” cases handled by the agency.

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The governor’s review found “many strengths” but also “identified systemic factors that impacted caseworker practice and supervisory oversight of assessments/investigations.”

The report also concluded last year’s strike led to “gaps in contacts with families and delays in recording assessment activities in (the statewide child welfare database).”

While the new contract may prevent another strike, Hay said the new agreement won’t necessarily prevent deaths like those.

“I don’t know that a contract would do that on any day,” she said. “Unfortunately accidents, tragedies do happen. We know the workers do the best they can under the agency guidelines, the state rules and guidelines, and the law.”