County's union workers still negotiating raises, decry poor morale


Published: Friday, September 27, 2013 at 6:34 p.m.
Last Modified: Friday, September 27, 2013 at 6:34 p.m.

The six-year wait for raises will finally end for many Alachua County employees on Tuesday, but union-represented workers still are waiting to find out what kind of raises they will receive.

The county is negotiating with the local bargaining units for the International Association of Fire Fighters and Laborers' International Union of North America.

The County Commission earlier this week approved a raises plan as part of its fiscal year 2014 budget that will give employees making $56,667 or more a 1.5 percent pay increase and employees below that figure a $850 raise, which amounts to a pay bump of more than 1.5 percent. The lower a person's salary, the higher the percentage increase he or she will receive.

County Manager Betty Baker said she felt the county needed to take a closer look at how to help people at the lowest level of the organization's salary range, which is why she created that proposal. The County Commission unanimously supported adding it to the budget.

After working hard and staying loyal to the county despite not receiving a cost-of-living increase for years, Baker said she knew something more needed to be done.

"Having been there, I just felt like they deserved as much as we could do, and I'm just so pleased that the board supported me on that," she said.

Kim Baldry, chief negotiator for the county, said the county has extended the same offer to IAFF and plans to do the same for LIUNA, with which it will meet again next week.

The upcoming fiscal year's budget includes funding for pay increases for union workers even though the raises still have to be negotiated, she said. The county is open to proposals about how to divvy up the money it has set aside for union employees, she said.

Brett Sandlin, president of IAFF Local 3852, said he would review the county's proposal, which is an improvement over the flat 1.5 percent raise that the county was considering for all workers earlier in the budget process.

"A 1.5 percent (raise) after six years is a slap in the face," Sandlin said. "The morale is in the dumps."

The IAFF Local 3852 represents almost 200 employees who work in non-administrative roles for the county's Fire Rescue and EMS departments, he said. The union won't be able to ratify a new contract by Sept. 30, so its workers will not have a raise in place by Oct. 1 like non-bargaining unit employees will.

Sandlin said he thinks it's a plus that the county has put some kind of raise on the table. "I think we are grateful that they're doing something," he said.

The county workforce has done its part in taking on more responsibilities and cutting costs in recent years, Sandlin said. IAFF-represented employees have made sacrifices that included accepting reduced vacation and sick leave payouts and less holiday pay, he said. It's time for the county to make its employees a bigger priority moving forward, he said.

Commissioner Lee Pinkoson said the economy appears to be turning around and that he's hopeful employees will see more raises in the coming years.

"I would hope that we would continue to make that a priority when we get to the next budget cycle," he said.

Andy Bemis, business manager for LIUNA Local 630, said he considers the county's newly approved raises plan a good first step toward helping employees but he said he knows more needs to be done in the coming years.

"They've been kind of neglected for six years now, and it's going to be a longer road than just this one year," he said. "I think what will really start to build morale is if the employees see kind of a long-term plan to correct this."

The vast majority of county employees represented by LIUNA will fall well below the $56,667 salary cut-off in the county's raises plan, meaning they will get more than a 1.5 percent increase if the union accepts that proposal. Local 630 represents between 225 and 250 county workers, with Public Works making up the biggest subsection of employees.

The deal of $850 or 1.5 percent still isn't as beneficial for employees as the 3 percent, across-the-board raise the county included in its initial budget proposal. Baker eliminated the 3 percent raises in the revised budget she submitted in August, citing various financial challenges.

The straight 1.5 percent increase that followed was a slap in the face, Bemis and Sandlin agreed. "If anything, it damaged morale more," Bemis said.

Bemis said it is also a little disheartening that the county seems to be employee-unfriendly not just in terms of the lack of raises in the recent past but in other areas as well.

Of particular concern this year is the lack of promotions for employees who have consistently done out-of-class work, he said. Workers will work out of class in higher pay grades to fill vacant positions only to have the county hire someone from outside to fill the role permanently rather than promote from within much of the time, Bemis said.

"You could help make this money issue a little easier if you gave employees some kind of career path, some kind of line of promotion," Bemis said.

The Alachua County Sheriff's Office will begin negotiations with the Police Benevolent Association's local bargaining unit next week and is waiting to hear from the Fraternal Order of Police so it can set a date to meet, Sheriff Sadie Darnell said.

The sheriff's negotiating team, of which she is not a member, plans to offer the county's raises plan for nonunion employees to its union workers as well, she said. That is more fair and equitable to lower-paid employees than a flat 1.5 percent increase, Darnell said.

Ensuring employees receive raises and fair wages needs to be the county's No. 1 priority, Darnell said. The county can't wait until the next budget cycle to revisit the wages issue, she said.

Instead, the county should reassess its financial situation mid-fiscal year at the latest to determine if it can give employees another boost, the sheriff said.

"I'm losing too many committed and dedicated people to other agencies," she said. "The commissioners who have not woken up to see the reality of us losing our employee capital — they need to definitely wake up and pay attention to this."

Contact Morgan Watkins at 338-3104 or morgan.watkins@gainesville.com.

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