Impasse between sheriff, union likely will end
Published: Thursday, March 28, 2013 at 7:19 p.m.
Last Modified: Thursday, March 28, 2013 at 7:19 p.m.
The impasse between Alachua County Sheriff Sadie Darnell and union-represented corrections officers at the county jail may end soon, with negotiations spurred by an available 3 percent pay bump to offset employees' state-mandated pension contributions.
Jeff McAdams, president of the Fraternal Order of Police Gator Lodge 67, met with a Sheriff's Office bargaining team led by Col. David Huckstep on Thursday to negotiate for the corrections officers as well as for FOP deputies, who already have a contract in place.
This month, the Alachua County Commission approved the 3 percent wage hike for its employees in the wake a January Florida Supreme Court ruling that upheld state employee's mandated pension contributions. The 3 percent increase isn't being considered a raise because it only offsets the contributions public employees must make to their pensions.
The County Commission also will give employees a lump-sum payment restoring the money they've already contributed to the Florida Retirement System since July 2011 when the mandate went into effect. The county's constitutional officers are likely to follow suit on both counts.
Darnell is already implementing the increase and lump-sum payment for non-bargaining unit employees.
She previously said she would re-enter negotiations with the Fraternal Order of Police deputies to do the same for those workers but was prohibited from extending the wage hike and lump-sum payment to the FOP corrections officers because they are at impasse.
McAdams has argued the sheriff should give the FOP's corrections officers and deputies the 3 percent increase immediately instead of using it as a bargaining chip to resume negotiations.
He negotiated Thursday with a bargaining team representing the sheriff for both the deputies and corrections officers.
They tackled the deputies' contract first, tentatively agreeing to accept the wage increase and lump-sum payment along with other provisions that Huckstep and McAdams agreed would provide an overall benefit for the employees. The deputies must ratify the changes by vote before they take effect.
Only one deputy attended the negotiations, McAdams said, because the employees he represents are afraid of facing negative repercussions at work, such as getting bad assignments, if they go to these meetings.
Then, after a brief recess, negotiations began for the corrections officers, with about 10 corrections officers present.
During the negotiations, Huckstep told McAdams the sheriff will give the union employees the 3 percent increase and lump-sum payment if they agree to end the impasse. If they don't, they may not receive the raise and lump sum until mid-summer after the dispute is resolved.
The sheriff and FOP have agreed on almost every issue in the contract except the grievance procedure, which employees can use to contest disciplinary actions they deem unfair.
Huckstep questioned why the debate on that issue couldn't have been delayed until the next contract negotiation instead of getting pushed to a union-enacted impasse that began in September of last year.
"Impasse is a nice word for lawsuit," he said. "The employees are suing the sheriff, and we're using a nice word to make it politically correct."
By the end of negotiations Thursday afternoon, McAdams reaffirmed his tentative agreement on several sections of the draft contract that had already been worked out in previous meetings.
He even tentatively agreed, pending a ratification vote by union employees, to accept the current grievance procedure in place at the Sheriff's Office, even though it has been the key sticking point for the FOP during impasse.
"We're being strong-armed into this," McAdams said of the bargaining team's insistence that the corrections officers drop the impasse.
McAdams said he wanted the sheriff to quickly give employees the retirement-related pay bump rather than use it as a bargaining chip to bring the FOP back to the negotiating table.
In a March 15 letter to Darnell, he said he waived the FOP's right to bargain on the issue. But Darnell requested they meet to negotiate instead.
Louise Grimm, human resources director for the Sheriff's Office, said Darnell could legally have agreed to a memorandum of understanding with McAdams and extended the 3 percent increase and lump-sum payment without negotiations.
However, Grimm said, the sheriff believed it was in the employees' best interest to negotiate and attempt to end the impasse and finally establish a contract for the corrections officers.
Huckstep said during Thursday's discussion that the union is asking the sheriff's bargaining team to be "the nice guys" in extending the pay bump without negotiation when the union is, in his words, suing the sheriff.
"What would you do? If your neighbor sued you, are you going to be nice?" he asked.
Art Forgey, spokesman for the Sheriff's Office, said the sheriff used the 3 percent wage hike as a bargaining chip to bring the FOP back for negotiations.
"It was designed to lure people to get them to the table, to get them talking," he said.
Forgey said everyone in the room Thursday realized nobody was winning at impasse, so they decided to negotiate for the employees' benefit so they can finally approve a contract.
With a contract in place, the FOP corrections officers would not only get the 3 percent increase and lump-sum payment but also other benefits they don't currently receive, such as financial longevity awards for years of service that other workers already get.
McAdams will bring the contract to the corrections officers for a ratification vote after hosting informational sessions with them. If they ratify it, the impasse will end and the contract, which would run through December 2015, will go into effect. It will likely take a few weeks before the contract can be ratified and implemented, at which point the employees would receive the 3 percent increase and lump-sum payment.
The sheriff prevailed on the key provisions she wanted Thursday, McAdams said, by using the pay bump as leverage. The FOP tentatively agreed to stick with the Sheriff's Office's current grievance process.
Under the sheriff's policy, employees contesting what they consider an unfair disciplinary action receive a decision from a five-member career service board made up, essentially, of their peers: Two people of the worker's choosing, two of the sheriff's and one individual collectively selected by the other four appointees.
The FOP wanted to use an independent arbitrator, as McAdams says the Gainesville Police Department and other organizations do, who would hear the entire case to determine if the discipline was fair and if any discipline was warranted at all. Under the sheriff's rules, he said, only the disciplinary action and not the infraction itself are reviewed.
But McAdams tentatively agreed to accept the sheriff's grievance procedure Thursday and expects the corrections officers will ratify the contract for the same reason: They need the money.
"Right now I know that the employees need money," he said. "There's no bones about it."
Contact Morgan Watkins at 338-3104 or firstname.lastname@example.org.