Bethlehem Press

Monday, September 16, 2019

Did county punish probation officers?

Tuesday, August 27, 2019 by Bernie O’Hare Special to the Bethlehem Press in Local News

Most employers, even in the public sector, hate having to deal with unions. A collective bargaining unit can provide legal protections to an employee whose boss wants to discipline or fire him. On Aug. 16, Northampton County Council may very well have punished a group of county workers simply because they left their union. County Council members Kevin Lott and Bill McGee, both of whom are union agents, led the charge against 64 court-appointed professionals, who consist mostly of probation and pretrial services officers and court reporters. After working half a year with no contract, they were awarded half the raises provided to other nonunion staff.

Northampton County’s court-appointed professionals were represented by AFSCME, but that made little sense. They serve at the pleasure of the court, and no union can protect them if a judge decides to terminate one or all of them for any reason, even a bad one. That’s the nature of at-will employment.

Last year, 30 percent of the court-appointed professionals petitioned the Pa. Labor Relations Board (PLRB) for decertification of AFSCME, their bargaining unit. An election was scheduled, but the union read the tea leaves and decided to throw in the towel. It was basically an amicable divorce. On Jan. 21 of this year, the PLRB decertified the union.

It was around this time that Executive Lamont McClure successfully negotiated six union contracts. He claimed he wanted to follow the same pattern for one and all. This consisted of a step increase (four and one-half percent) in the first year, followed by two percent raises in years two and three. Corrections officers would later insist on binding arbitration, and made out a little worse than if they had just taken McClure’s offer.

What about the court-appointed professionals? Exec McClure recently decided to recommend a two percent pay hike like other non-union employees. But the raise only goes into effect on July 28 instead of being effective at the beginning of the year, as it was for all other career service employees.

Fiscal Affairs Director Steve Barron said the July 28 date was selected because it corresponded with the most recent pay period. Making the raise retroactive would cost the county a grand total of $69,982.

Peter Nebzydoski, a probation officer with the county for the past 10 years, asked council to make the pay hike retroactive to Jan. 21, the date their union was decertified. He certainly works hard enough. He has a case load of 234 people. But two council members who double as union agents – Bill McGee and Kevin Lott – basically told Nebzydoski that he should have stayed in a union and must now pay the price for his stupidity.

“They made the choice to leave the union and that was their choice,” said Lott. “They could have stayed there and got what was offered. Now the employees are coming back six months later and are saying, ‘Forget your budget. We made a choice but we don’t really like that choice’ ... I think there was [sic] some bad choices made by employees here.” He concluded by saying they made a mistake and would have to live with the consequences.

“They didn’t see the big picture here,” he concluded. McGee echoed Lott. “They did make a choice,” he said.

Before the vote, about 10 probation officers visited council. Arky Colon, a pretrial services officer and 29-year veteran, asked council to “do the right thing.”

Council member John Cusick tried. He offered an amendment to make the raise retroactive to the beginning of the year.

“These folks here make up the backbone of the court system,” said Cusick. He argued that the pay should be made retroactive to the beginning of the year.

Council member Peg Ferraro seconded. “I strongly feel that these employees are being punished for leaving the union. I also feel it’s an affront to these loyal employees ... “ She suggested those who opposed retroactivity should “take off their union hats and put on their ‘Do what’s right for our employees hat.’”

Agreeing with Cusick and Ferraro, council member Bob Werner said that even if these probation officers made a bad decision, “that doesn’t mean they should receive economic hardship.”

Council President Ron Heckman also sided with court-appointed professionals, saying they were “wards of the county” once their union was decertified. He heard no strong reason why July 28 was the date the increase should become effective. Actually, no reason at all was offered.

Union agents Lott and McGee were joined by council members Tara Zrinski and Lori Vargo Heffner.

Zrinski, who is running for state representative against Marcia Hahn, noted that she’s never been a member of a union. But she needs union PAC money for her campaign.

Heffner claimed to have done her own investigation, which consisted of a phone call to Human Resources Director Elizabeth Kelly. This “investigation” included no calls to probation officers. According to council member Peg Ferraro, Heffner said after the meeting that she resented probation officers for making more money than she does as a social worker.

Cusick’s amendment failed by a 4-4 vote. Cusick, Ferraro, Werner and Heckman voted Yes. The others voted against the workers.

Council member Matt Dietz, who almost certainly would have sided with the workers, was absent. He was busy stuffing backpacks for Backpack Pals in Bethlehem.

Sitting quietly throughout this exchange was Executive Lamont McClure. He said nothing for or against the workers.