A day after a state board determined a strike by Montgomery County’s child welfare workers presented a clear and present danger to children, a judge on Monday ruled to extend for 60 days a restraining order he issued last week that halted the strike and ordered the sides to three negotiating sessions, including two in public.
“What this matter is coming down to is one thing and one thing only. And that’s money,” Montgomery County Court Common Pleas Judge Richard Skelton said, which the counsel for both Children Services and the Professionals Guild of Ohio agreed with during a hearing Monday.
“The irony that this court sees in that regard is what the court is concerned about is the safety and welfare of children,” he 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. The most the offered by the county has been 3%, according to the union.
James Melle, the union’s attorney, told Skelton the issues are more complicated than throwing out percentage figures.
“You have to put this whole thing into context,” he said.
Skelton told counsel that the law gives the court power to step into the dispute and ordered both parties and mediators to his courtroom for three sessions.
The first will be a closed session 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 July 31 meeting.
Melle initially asked Skelton to limit the extension to 30 days.
Nadia Klarr, an attorney for the county, asked for the negotiations be kept private but the offers made public, “because the union has not shared accurate information” with its members.
Skelton said he did not want to hear the “tit for tat” of each sides’ grievances during the court-ordered negotiations.
Skelton kept the extension to 60 days, the longest allowable by law, but the mediation/negotiation 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.
Children Services workers began picketing Friday morning outside the Haines Children’s Center before being served court papers around noon 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.
Unless the county can show otherwise, Skelton said nothing prevents the union workers to hold informational pickets moving forward, including along North Main Street in front of Children Services’ office. Skelton had put conditions on the practice in his Friday ruling.
Skelton issued the 72-hour restraining order on Friday, which sent the question to an emergency Sunday meeting by the State Employment Relations Board, which found the strike to present a danger to the public. The SERB ruling allowed the county to press for an extension on Monday in Common Pleas Court.
“SERB finds that the potential harm would be too great not to declare that the strike by employees of the employer presents a clear and present danger under (state law),” the board determined.
It noted that in 2018 there were 16 child fatalities in Montgomery County and 12 so far this year.
Klarr told the three-member board the children in the welfare system are vulnerable, in danger and cannot care for themselves. The strike “presents a formula for disaster,” she said.
Melle called that speculation and said asking SERB to declare a clear and present danger was designed to kill the strike.
“The only legitimate tool that the union has to move this case, move the wages in their direction is to strike,” he said.
About three-quarters of the union employees are caseworkers who handle abuse and neglect cases for more than 2,000 children.
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