County, union divide grows in Children Services dispute

Members of the Professionals Guild of Ohio, which represents about 270 Montgomery County Children Services positions, picket outside the Haines Children’s Center on the first day of a strike Friday. CHRIS STEWART / STAFF

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Members of the Professionals Guild of Ohio, which represents about 270 Montgomery County Children Services positions, picket outside the Haines Children’s Center on the first day of a strike Friday. CHRIS STEWART / STAFF

A rift between Montgomery County and the union representing its child welfare workers grew wider following this week’s county commission meeting.

The day after a judge ordered striking workers represented by the Professionals Guild of Ohio (PGO) back to their jobs for 60 days, county commissioners approved $55,000 on outside legal counsel to fight the union’s ongoing demand for a 6% pay increase the county called “fiscally irresponsible.”

RELATED: Judge halts Children Services strike for 60 days, orders public negotiations

“When you look at the numbers — 6% — we just can’t do that,” said Montgomery County Commission President Debbie Lieberman.

The county’s human resources director also went on the offensive during the meeting Tuesday.

“I’ve been very concerned about some of the things being said in the media and some things that have been portrayed against the county,” said Joyce Carter, the county’s director of human resources.

Shortly after Tuesday’s meeting, the local’s president accused Lieberman of direct dealing with PGO members.

Jane Hay, the union’s president, said Lieberman has been in contact with PGO-represented Children Services employees via Facebook Messenger and told them the union had not shared information with its members regarding the county’s offers, a claim Hay and the union dispute.

RELATED: Striking Montgomery County children’s services employees must return to work

Reached Wednesday, Lieberman said two Children Services workers had initiated a conversation with her, one contacting her via Facebook Messenger and another through email.

In the Messenger thread Lieberman provided to this newspaper, a caseworker tells the commissioner, “I’ve never felt so unappreciated or misunderstood.”

Lieberman said her online remarks to the workers were tempered, taking care not to violate labor-relations rules, but she did question whether rank-and-file members had been made aware of the county’s last offer during a mediation session on Thursday.

“We are concerned they didn’t know our last, best offer,” Lieberman told this newspaper Wednesday.

Hay said she interprets Lieberman’s comments as an accusation that union leadership was not being forthright with its represented workers.

“She was saying basically that PGO wasn’t communicating transparently with its members, trying to make it sound like we weren’t bringing back all the facts or what the offer was,” Hay said.

The PGO, which represents about 270 of the county’s child welfare workers, has asked for a 6% wage increase consistent with one the county recently gave workers represented by the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees. About three-quarters of the PGO employees are caseworkers who handle abuse and neglect cases for more than 2,000 children.

MORE: State board: Striking Montgomery County children’s services employees must return to work

Union members back at work are being watched “like we are bad people,” Hay said. “It’s like we’re under martial law.”

She said management is taking attendance, extra sheriff’s deputies walk the hallways and undercover cops are staking out the parking lot.

“There’s no trust and a lot of respect lost,” Hay said. “I don’t personally feel this division will ever be the same.”

During a presentation at Tuesday’s county commission meeting, Carter said the last offer made to PGO was a 3% percent raise across-the-board, a 1% range adjustment and a $500 lump sum equivalent to approximately an additional 1%.

Chauncey Mason, PGO’s executive director, said the local union had earlier taken a vote — which won by a two-thirds majority — to reject an offer of 4% and any subsequent offers that didn’t go higher.

“They rejected that resoundingly,” Mason said.

While the county’s last offer has the appearance of 4%, the range adjustments do not impact all workers, Hay said. And most notably, that offer by the county was not retroactive to April, according to the union.

“So it’s still truly not 4%,” Hay said.

On advice of legal counsel, a county spokesperson on Wednesday declined to confirm the proposed effective date of its last offer.

Though the sides have a three-year contract, it included a “re-opener” clause to negotiate wages for the third and final year, from April 2019 through March 2020.

MORE: Mediation session ‘one last shot’ to avoid Children Services strike

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

Carter said it would cost nearly $1 million to give the child protective workers a 6% wage increase.

“The commissioners rejected the fact finder’s report as fiscally irresponsible, and the decision was made to ensure the stewardship of tax payers’ dollars and of our human services levy funds.”

But the fact finder’s report said the county never contended it lacked the ability to finance the union’s proposal.

The union filed a notice to strike, and after talks broke down last Thursday, PGO called for the strike to begin Friday.

No sooner than the workers walked out, Montgomery Common Pleas Court Judge Richard Skelton issued a temporary restraining order forcing them back to work.

The temporary injunction sent the question to an emergency Sunday meeting by the State Employment Relations Board, which found the strike presented a danger to the public. The SERB ruling allowed the county to press for an extension on Monday, which Skelton ordered.

Skelton said Monday the law gives the court power to step into the dispute and ordered both parties and mediators to his courtroom for three bargaining sessions.

MORE: High staff turnover, burnout puts child welfare system in crisis

The first will be a closed session Wednesday, July 31, where Skelton will ask Children Services and PGO to provide a brief history of their respective offers over the past six months.

The judge said he would use his discretion whether to release the status of the negotiations following the first meeting.

Sessions scheduled on Aug. 28 and Sept. 6 will be open to the public. The sides can bargain at other times during the first 30 days in private.

Mason, active in labor rights for 42 years and a past SERB board member appointed by former Gov. George Voinovich, said he has never seen a county judge take over negotiations quite like this.

“It was unprecedented in my experience,” he said. “And I’ve been in this a long, long time.”

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