Corrections officers have new contract
All of Northampton County’s unions, which represent about 75 percent of the workforce, now have contracts. The last holdout was the corrections officers’ union, represented by AFSCME local 2549. Their agreement is the result of a binding arbitration award July 26. This award was approved by Northampton County Council Aug. 16 in an 8-0 vote.
Executive Lamont McClure had offered a step increase (four and one-half percent) in the first year, followed by two percent pay hikes in years two and three. In addition, he offered to bring corrections officers into the county’s health care plan, a significant improvement over what they have now. This offer was rejected, and because corrections officers are unable to strike, they are entitled to and sought binding arbitration.
Corrections officers were awarded 0.77 percent more in wages than the county had offered. It consists of a $0.75 per hour pay hike in years one and two, followed by a two percent raise in year three. It also awards an increase in shift differential from $0.65 per hour to $0.85 per hour. This is less than the county offered. It denies entry into the county’s health plan until next year.
What McClure said he liked about this award is that the “lion’s share” of the increase went to officers who have been employed for 13 years or less. Those with more than 13 years are getting less money than they would have received had negotiators taken the county’s offer. “The arbitrator[s] did for us what we were not able to do at the table with any of our bargaining units,” he said.
McClure added this addresses a complaint that “[w]e can’t recruit or retain because Lehigh pays more ...”
County Council member John Cusick said the Lehigh-Northampton comparison is innapropriate because Lehigh deducts a percentage of the benefits while Northampton deducts salary. McClure indicated that single Lehigh corrections officers might do better, but those with family plans do better in Northampton.
In the arbitration award, county arbitrator Michael McAuliffe Miller concluded there was “ample evidence” that Northampton corrections officers are “fairly compensated and well within the range of other counties.” He also pointed to testimony that, since 2015, only 1.4 percent of employee separations were the result of a worker leaving for another county
This award will cost the county less than it would have paid had the union accepted the contract. “Under our offer at the table, which was rejected for arbitration, it would have cost us $827,326,” said Executive McClure. “The arbitrator’s binding award is going to cost us $791,164.”
McClure is pleased, but corrections officers are not. On the weekend following the award, 22 officers were mandated on one shift and 23 on another. This pattern continued again the following weekend. When corrections officers are being mandated, they can work 16 hours straight.
The arbitration award permits both voluntary and mandatory overtime, but fails to address staffing and post re-assignments to combat shortages. Arbitrator McAuliffe Miller, who dissented, complained that corrections officers actually work only 40 weeks a year, leading to “excessive overtime.” He said unaddressed understaffing at the jail is an “acute and ongoing problem.”
Under state law, county council was required to accept the binding arbitration award.