Children services strike looms; fact-finder sided with union on pay

The union representing about 270 Montgomery County’s Children Services employees on Monday filed a 10-day notice of those workers’ intent to strike beginning at 12:01 a.m. Friday, July 19.

About three-fourths of those employees represented by the Professionals Guild of Ohio are child welfare caseworkers, while others are clerical, benefits, IT and other staff.

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Montgomery County Administrator Michael Colbert said in a statement that county leaders respect the caseworkers’ difficult jobs in protecting vulnerable children, but he said the county’s final offer “was both fair and fiscally responsible.”

“Please rest assured, our operations will remain open and we will continue to provide high-quality services during a strike,” Colbert said, referencing a “comprehensive contingency plan” to serve children and families.

Asked for details, county officials said about 70 non-union employees would “cover essential services” in the event of a strike. Jane Hay, president of the local PGO union council, questioned how the county could do that effectively, especially asking families to trust unfamiliar faces in high-stress situations.

“They want to appear that they can … but you have to have certain qualification to be a caseworker, to make the face-to-face visits with people,” Hay said. “There are notes that you have to put into the statewide system, and you can’t put in notes for somebody else. Who’s going to testify in court? So court-involved cases probably are not going to move forward.”

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The Children Services workers are under contract through March 31, 2020, but that agreement included a “re-opener” clause to negotiate wages for the third and final year of the contract.

According to State Employment Relations Board documents, the parties met several times, including a number of mediation sessions in February and March, but did not reach agreement. SERB appointed a fact-finder, who held a hearing on the wage issues May 29.

On June 20, fact-finder William Heekin issued his report supporting the union’s proposal on pay raises, with two adjustments. But on June 25, the county commissioners voted to reject that report.

According to Heekin’s report, the county had proposed eliminating a grandfathered pay scale, increasing the remaining scale 1 percent while also giving eligible employees a 2 percent raise (effectively a 3 percent combined raise for many). But some workers’ pay would be frozen if the “grandfather” changes left their existing salary above the top of their scale.

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The union’s proposal called for larger raises, citing the increases that other county employees had recently received – at least 6 percent in most cases when combining base pay and “step” raises, according to Heekin’s report. Heekin sided with the union’s call for a 4 percent raise, plus a 2 percent merit increase for employees who get a certain rating on their annual evaluation.

County officials said the parties met again after the commissioners’ vote, most recently on July 2, where the county made its final offer. Colbert’s statement said the county offered reasonable raises but has to be responsible stewards of taxpayer money, including human services levy funds.

“Our goal is to provide fair and competitive compensation, so that we can recruit and retain top talent,” Colbert said. “Our PGO workforce is already well compensated, with our child welfare caseworkers the highest paid in our region.”

County officials shared a chart listing their caseworker salaries as the highest in southwest Ohio – by a narrow margin at the starting rate, and by a large margin at the maximum rate. Union officials shared another chart comparing Montgomery County salaries to other large Ohio counties. That chart showed the local starting salary still near the top, but the maximum salary ranking fourth of Ohio’s seven largest counties.

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