Conflicts arise; members cast rules aside
Lehigh County Commissioners suspended “rules of the board” and added the long-delayed and much-belabored Human Services union contract to their agenda Aug. 14. Even that simple act was not without drama, as commissioners voted 8-1 to authorize the exception to regular order, which allowed the contract to be added to the already published agenda.
Commissioner Geoff Brace objected to suspending the rules in such an irregular fashion.
Human Services workers have been working without an agreement since Dec. 31, 2018.
Once on the commissioners’ agenda for its first reading (it will be voted on at the next meeting), Commissioner Amy Zanelli objected to late delivery of the agreement. She said she had only seen a copy of the document a few hours before the meeting.
“I’m going to support this,” said Zanelli. But she also criticized the entire negotiating process. “The board involved itself in union negotiations; that has not gone well.”
However, Zanelli said she was “embarrassed to see the county put this forward because it hurts the most vulnerable of our employees.”
She said that the new contract does not allow employees on any type of extended leave such as sick leave, maternity or paternity leave, to continue to accrue compensatory time.
“This hurts. This is kicking people when they are down,” she said.
Human Services worker Michele Fritz confirmed Zanelli’s understanding of the proposed contract. “That’s exactly what it means,” said Fritz. “Anyone who has five or more sick days in a 10-day period will not accrue vacation time or sick time during that time.
“For example,” said Fritz, “10 years ago when I had to take 11 weeks of sick time for a cancer diagnosis, I did not accrue any sick time or vacation time while I was out. That sickens me.”
Service Employees International Union (SEIU) Local 668 shop steward Frank Gerlach said, “It comes down to the process. You say we are appreciated, but those are words; actions speak louder than words.
“We’ve been taking the ‘human’ out of human services for about the past eight years.
“This a board of nine,” said Gerlach, “but these negotiations have become a process of three.”
Gerlach was referring to the three board members who comprise the negotiating team: Commissioners Amanda Holt, Percy Dougherty and Marty Nothstein.
County Executive Phillips Armstrong said the “administration had been kept in the dark through most of this process.”
Armstrong initially said he had not seen the proposed agreement at all, but a staffer acknowledged that the document had been delivered to Armstrong’s staff.
The Human Services Department is under Armstrong’s jurisdiction.
The collective bargaining agreement is dated May 23, 2019, but there was no explanation as to why it was not on the June or July agendas, but commissioners said a discussion was needed because of the length of time that Human Services workers had gone without a contract.
The contract calls for a 2.5 percent pay or “step” increase in the current pay scale; however those employees at the top of the pay scale will get 2.5 percent of their base pay in the form of a lump payment.
Workers will get a 3.15 percent pay raise effective Jan. 1, 2020 and again on Jan. 1, 2022.
Being bilingual earns workers additional pay when they use their foreign language skills on the job. Speaking a foreign language as part of the job one or two times in a pay period earns an extra $100 for each month foreign language skills are used. If a foreign language is used three or more times, the bilingual stipend is $150.
The new contract adds “sexual orientation [and] gender identity” to the list of protected classes.
In other business, commissioners adopted the 2020-24 capital plan. Language stipulates that the new ordinance “is a policy statement only and is in no way to be construed as a budget or an appropriation.”
Some high-lights of the Capital Plan: $1.225 million over the next five years – replacement of County vehicles; $2.325 million equally spread over 2021 and 2022 – D&L Trail expansion from Cementon to Allentown; $1.1 million in 2921 – Trexler Nature Preserve Road Repairs; $1.444 million over 2020 and 2022 – Cedar Creek Parkway West Expansion and Improvement; $1 million in 2021 – Lock Ridge Park Furnace Repair; $1.225 million spread over 2020 and 2024 – Seager’s Quarry Bridge repair or maintenance; $2.5 million in 2020 – Coplay to Northampton bridge over the Lehigh River; $1 million in 2020 – for renovations and restoration in Old Courthouse.
The biggest allocation is $10.6 million over five years for agricultural conservation easements.
In other business, Angela Vullo from the Committee for the American System Glass-Steagall National Infrastructure Bank, based in Leesburg, VA, urged the commissioners to support the establishment of an infrastructure bank with interstate authority to finance such ambitious and expensive projects as high-speed rail passenger service.
She did not ask the commissioners to take any action or make a resolution in support of the idea, but said in an interview that she and her colleagues were speaking to various levels of government and to private citizens’ groups to educate them on the concept of “infrastructure banks” a concept developed by Alexander Hamilton.
She said her goal is to get legislation proposed in Congress that would facilitate establishment of such an infrastructure bank.