Union loses to county in pay dispute

FONDA – Montgomery County’s civil service employees’ union lost a battle over pay during arbitration with the county.

The arbitrator ruled March 8 the county does not have to pay the employees it told to stay home during Tropical Storm Irene.

Some county employees were directed to stay home during the storm on Aug. 29, 2011, until after Labor Day, losing several days without pay.

Local CSEA union representatives considered it a slight, especially after being paid for lost time during a flood in 2006 when county employees were also instructed to stay home.

“We got paid in 2006, and we were very disappointed we did not get paid in 2011,” local CSEA union President Ed Russo said.

Russo said there was not a lot of money in dispute, but a principle was at stake.

“We had people standing outside the doorway waiting to go to work. I got called that day to stay home, but I was ready to work,” Russo said.

According to the union’s position, a precedent was set when then-chairman of the Board of Supervisors Thomas Quackenbush paid union employees to stay home during a flood and essential employees who remained working time and a half, action fellow supervisors greatly admonished him for.

Quackenbush said he made the decision to pay employees in 2006 because he thought he had the authority to make an emergency decision until such time as the full board could conveniently meet.

“I was wrong, but in the heat of the moment I needed to make that decision,” he said.

Then in 2011, disaster struck again. Quackenbush, again chairman of the board, reversed his decision of 2006 by voting with the board not to pay employees who were instructed to stay home during Tropical Storm Irene and time and a half for essential workers who remained at their post.

Quackenbush admitted that “in his heart” he thought he made the right decision in 2006, but considered that he would not make the same decision twice.

“The leadership of the CSEA went all the way when they decided to take the matter into arbitration rather than negotiate with the county,” Quackenbush said.

When the arbitrator issued the opinion the county followed correct procedures by not paying county employees directed to stay home during an emergency, Quackenbush said the case was closed permanently on future decisions.

Montgomery County Personnel Officer Richard Baia agreed.

“Hopefully, this case with the judgment sets a precedent,” Baia said.

Russo disagreed, saying there was no plan in effect to compensate employees during missed time during inclement weather and there still isn’t one.

“In 2006, it happened; in 2011, it happened again. Who can predict when it may happen again?” Russo said. “There are 15 supervisors going in all directions. Again, employees took the brunt.”

The union did win a victory of sorts when the arbitrator decided to rule in its favor regarding sick leave.

After the flood, employees were asked if they wanted to use personal or vacation days to cover their lost time.

However, a doctor’s note was required to take a single sick day, which is not the case in normal county operations.

According to the arbitrator, the county violated an agreement where “verification and proof of illness” was required of employees for an absence to cover time off.