Montgomery County and the union representing 270 of its child welfare workers will be in an unusual — if not unprecedented — closed-door session today with the judge who temporarily halted the workers’ strike.
Montgomery County Common Pleas Court Judge Richard Skelton ordered Children Services Division management and the Professionals Guild of Ohio (PGO) representatives along with state mediators to court at noon to give him a history of their respective offers over the past six months.
“It’s a very unique process. I’m not quite sure what’s going to come out of it,” said Montgomery County Commission President Debbie Lieberman. “I hope some conciliation comes out of it at the prodding of the judge.”
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. Those talks broke down, and on July 19 the workers went on strike. About three-quarters of them are caseworkers who handle abuse and neglect cases for more than 2,000 children.
Just hours into the strike, Skelton issued a 72-hour restraining order, which sent the question to an emergency meeting by the State Employment Relations Board (SERB), which found the strike to present a danger to children in the agency’s care. That ruling allowed the county to request a 60-day extension of the injunction, which Skelton approved July 23.
Jane Hay, PGO’s local president, said the union doesn’t know what to expect when they enter Skelton’s courtroom today because it’s “unprecedented for a judge to get involved.” She worries other judges will use similar tactics to undercut child welfare workers elsewhere in the future.
“All eyes in the state are basically on this case right now,” she said. “No judge has never stepped in before and done that.”
The judge said he would use his discretion whether to release the status of the negotiations following today’s hearing.
Brianna Wooten, the county’s communications director, said she doesn’t expect more than an exchange of information at today’s hearing.
“At this stage, all the judge has asked for during this preliminary mediation is going to be for each side to present very bare-bones facts about what the offer pattern has been and what the back and forth has been so he can get a case history,” she said. “We hope to continue to work in good faith, and we hope a long-term resolution can come out of this.”
Skelton ordered two other mediation/negotiation sessions scheduled for Aug. 28 and Sept. 6 that will be open to the public. The sides can bargain at other times during the first 30 days in private.
The union 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, according to the union.
Joyce Carter, the county’s director of human resources, 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%.
Since the union gave the state its notice to strike, the PGO has filed two unfair labor practice charges against the county with SERB.
The first filed July 16 claimed a Children Services supervisor violated rules by asking a bargaining unit employee to either clock into work or take comp time at time and a half off the books to testify in a court case that would occur during the strike.
The same complaint also alleges the county aimed to punish workers by terminating the dental and vision coverage for striking employees. The union claims the coverage was not subject to the wage re-opener.
The union filed a subsequent unfair labor practice charge dated Friday claiming the Children Services Division management forced union-represented workers to remove personal items, including union paraphernalia, but the same directive was not enforced on non-striking workers. Further, workers were instructed to begin sign into work using sign-in sheets, a practice not in place before the strike.
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