State board to rule on future of Children Services strike

Montgomery County’s Children Services division and the union representing its workers have been called to an emergency hearing on Sunday before the State Employment Relations Board.

The board will determine whether a strike by Children Service workers, which was halted by a court on Friday for 72 hours, presents a clear and present danger to the public.

Children Services requested the hearing from SERB Friday afternoon after Montgomery Common Pleas Court Judge Richard Skelton issued a restraining order, putting on hold the strike by Professionals Guild of Ohio workers.

The emergency meeting and hearing, open to the public, will be at 3 p.m. in the board’s 12th-floor office at 65 East State St. in Columbus.

If the SERB board determines a clear and present danger exists, Children Services may return to court and seek a 60-day extension of the 72-hour injunction, according to state law.

Children Services workers began picketing Friday outside the Haines Children’s Center on North Main Street.

The striking workers handle child protective services cases and monitor foster care and adoption cases for more than 2,000 children in the Montgomery County child welfare system.

Striking workers were served court papers around noon Friday by sheriff’s deputies and told they had 30 minutes to break up the strike and either go back to work, take leave or get arrested.

“I think a lot of our staff decided to take leave. They are not going back to work today,” said Daniel Rice, the Professionals Guild of Ohio local vice president.

Rice said the union was blindsided by the filing because the county had claimed its strike contingency plan would provide uninterrupted service to children and families.

“Most of the membership is upset. They think this is just another way to force us into work,” Rice said. “Michael Colbert, the county administrator, said he had everything covered if we went on strike and it wouldn’t be a problem, it wouldn’t be an issue. And they’ve served us within 6 hours of us starting the strike and ordering us back to work.”

Wage negotiations between the union and Montgomery County broke down Thursday, and more than 100 workers began picketing at 6:30 a.m. and were joined by other labor organizations.

The court filing by Job & Family Services claimed a strike would cause “irreparable harm to the community” and sought to compel caseworkers and others in the division back to work for a period of 72 hours and extend that permanently should the parties not reach a resolution during that time.

An attorney for the county division also asked the court to limit where strikers could picket due to safety concerns along the North Main Street corridor near the Haines Center.

Late Friday, the Professionals Guild of Ohio’s attorney filed a motion to vacate the temporary restraining order. It argued that the county’s Children Services division can’t itself be a plaintiff in the case and that the restraining order was granted just hours after the union went on strike without examining any evidence to conclude the activity presented a clear and present danger to the public.

The motion was denied by Skelton.

Montgomery County Administrator Michael Colbert said union leadership made alarming comments leading up to the strike.

“While we are confident in our contingency plan, the best solution will always be to have our dedicated caseworkers in place, who know these children and families best,” he said. “Montgomery County looks forward to continuing to work together with PGO to reach an agreement, but not at the expense of children and families.”

Union leadership said the county administration is the party responsible for endangering the county’s children.

“All they are doing is hurting our families,” said Eric Kanthak, a PGO steward. “These caseworkers here are really upset about the situations they are leaving families in. There are safety plans and we had to walk out of there last night wondering if they are going to be met.”

Jane Hay, the union’s president, said the county took matters to the court because “I think they’re scared, and they should be. The outpouring of support is over the top.”

About three-fourths of those employees represented by the PGO are child welfare caseworkers, while others are clerical, benefits, information technology and other staff. The union sought a 6% increase, the same the county recently gave other employees who are represented by a different union, Hay said.

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 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.

By the numbers

270: Workers represented by union

2,000+: Children in county welfare system

6%: Raise asked for by workers

3%: Highest raise offer by county

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